Charting the Evolution of Goran Dragic

Sam CooperCorrespondent IIIMay 12, 2013

We have seen Goran Dragic go through a transformation since his rookie season.
We have seen Goran Dragic go through a transformation since his rookie season.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

"Dragic knocks it down! He was just looking for the foul and three free-throws and he hit the shot!"

Up until this point, Goran Dragic had always shown flashes of potential. Though his first few seasons as a member of the Phoenix Suns were fairly inconsistent, there was always something special about the young point guard.

Growing up in Slovenia, Dragic was a basketball prodigy. He spent his days idolizing the likes of Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Steve Nash, and would wake up at three in the morning just to watch NBA games. 

Soon enough, after several years of basketball in Slovenia, Dragic was drafted to the NBA. He was living the dream and playing on the same team as his idol, who is widely considered to be one of the greatest point guards in NBA history.

And now, after several seasons of playing as a backup, Dragic has received an opportunity to be an NBA starter. He has blossomed into a wonderful young talent, and while Nash approaches the twilight of his career, Dragic is only getting started.

In fact, one might argue that Dragic is at the point where he has surpassed Nash's current level of play. Dragic has been taught well, and now he even tortures his former mentor and teammate with great plays such as this pass.

Goran is currently playing at an All-Star level, and Suns fans couldn't be more delighted. However, it wasn't always that way.

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Let's take a close look at Dragic's history and analyze his progression as a player step by step. 

Early Career Struggles 

In the 2008 NBA draft, a 22-year-old prospect named Goran Dragic was taken with the 45th overall pick of the draft by the San Antonio Spurs. Two days later, he was traded to Phoenix.

Dragic had a hard time getting adjusted to the NBA. In his first 20 games he played 12 minutes per game, and in that time averaged 2.7 points, 1.5 assists, 1.2 turnovers and 1.6 fouls. He also shot just 28 percent from the field and connected on one of 12 three-point attempts.

It was a change for Dragic, as the NBA is naturally much more competitive than the Slovenian and Spanish leagues he had previously played for. Dragic was no longer considered a star, and he was just a little-known foreign player without any expectations who received no respect from most players and fans.

Dragic's performance did pick up in the second half of the season, but he did not appear to be a particularly spectacular prospect. After two seasons in the NBA, Dragic had career averages of 6.5 points and 2.6 assists per game, and he had just three games in which he scored more than 20 points. 

But there was one bright spot early on in Dragic's career: his three-point shooting. He connected on 37 percent of his three-point attempts in his rookie season, and 39.4 percent the year after. In fact, nearly two-fifths of his points scored in the 2009-10 regular season came from behind the arc.

The heat map below of Dragic's sophomore season shows just how often he takes long-range shots. A heat map simply measures the total points a player scores at different positions on the court, but doesn't take into account efficiency or field-goal percentage. 

Dragic shot just 32 percent from three-point range this season, which is the lowest of his career, but his long-range shooting is still one of his strengths. And now that Dragic has improved other aspects of his offensive game, such as his mid-range shooting and playmaking, he is quickly becoming an all-around offensive force. 

Breakout Game

Up until the 2010 NBA playoffs, Dragic's one career game with more than 21 points was a 32-point outburst against the Jazz (a game the Suns lost). 

People saw the potential in the second-year point guard, but his real breakout game was Game 3 of the 2010 Western Conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs. Dragic took over in the second half with 26 points after remaining scoreless in the first, and the Suns took a commanding 3-0 lead in the series.

Dragic hit a few threes, but he was able to dominate the Spurs because of his inside game. Dragic relentlessly attacked the basket, using lefty layups and pivot moves to spin around post defenders such as DeJuan Blair and Tim Duncan.

It was a statement game for Dragic, and it marked the beginning of his transition into the great player he is today. 

Coach Alvin Gentry told the young guard two simple words during the game that would transform Dragic into a much more versatile and dominant scorer.

"Be aggressive."

Perhaps those two words have stayed with Dragic over the years, as he has become a much more aggressive player on the offensive end.

When he first entered the league, Dragic was a fairly one-dimensional player on offense, with his only above-average trait being his three-point shooting. He struggled with passing turnovers, and he was also reluctant to drive to the rim.

In his first three seasons, Dragic took 83 more three-point attempts than layups, and he didn't look for contact as much. He averaged just 3.6 free-throw attempts per 40 minutes in his rookie season, and was fouled on 9.8 percent of his shots in 2010-11.

Now, Dragic looks to get to the rim much more. He still took 11 more three-pointers than he did layups this season, but that is a much smaller difference than he had from earlier in his career.

Additionally, Dragic is taking many more shots from the charity stripe. He averaged five free-throw attempts per 40 minutes this season, a new career high, and is now fouled on 10.8 percent of his total shots.

He is not shying away from contact, and that new aggressiveness not only allows Dragic to make his own game more dominant, but it also opens up space for shooters to catch the kick-out pass on the perimeter and spot up for three. Attacking the basket has made the offense much more efficient. 

Trade to Houston

After a poor first half to the 2010-11 season, Dragic was traded to the Houston Rockets with a first-round pick for Aaron Brooks.

Suns fans were despondent following the team's decision to trade the fan-favorite point guard, and they only grew more depressed after Dragic blossomed in Houston.

Dragic spent the rest of the season following the trade on the bench, but he finally got an opportunity to be a starter the following year. He started 28 games for Houston, in which he emerged as one of the better young point guards in the NBA.

In those 28 games, Dragic put up averages of 18.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game while shooting 49 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point range. 

He played at a level nobody thought he was capable of, dominating opponent after opponent. Dragic had 13 games with at least 20 points, one of which was a 26-point, 11-assist performance in a tough win against the Los Angeles Lakers

Dragic finished the season shooting 46 percent from the field, and he was able to shoot from all areas of the court, as shown in this shot chart for the 2011-2012 season.

He struggled a little in a few select areas, such as the left-wing three and the right-corner three, but for the most part Dragic was able to attack the basket while shooting from both mid-range and from behind the arc. He had already evolved into a more versatile scorer, and that would only continue to improve after returning to Phoenix. 

Return of the Dragon

Dragic signed in Phoenix over the summer to a four-year contract worth $34 million, and he would become a full-time starter for the first time in his career.

Despite a dismal season for the Suns in general, Dragic emerged as the team's indisputable MVP. 

Dragic put up 14.7 points, 7.4 assists and 1.6 steals per game, and he had a fantastic second half. After the All-Star break, Dragic averaged 16.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists in 26 games. He played like an All-Star guard, and posted statistics in March and April similar to the numbers of other promising guards such as Jrue Holiday, Brandon Jennings and Ty Lawson. 

Dragic has also become a great all-around guard, and he is one of just several NBA players to average at least 14.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game. The other players on that list are LeBron James, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday, which is a great pool of talent to be grouped with.

Dragic has now developed into an above-average starting point guard, but why? Other than his aggressiveness, how has he improved since his first stint with Phoenix?

For one, there is his playmaking. Young point guards often make a lot of mistakes and commit both passing and ball-handling turnovers as they learn the game, but Dragic had an especially hard time in his rookie season, committing 3.6 turnovers per 36 minutes.

Now, Dragic has a higher basketball I.Q, and he is able to see the full court and make the right decision when choosing to pass to a teammate. This has led to a much better assist/passing turnover ratio, and that number went up from 3.3 in Dragic's rookie season to 5.2 last year in Houston.

The graph below shows just how much Dragic has improved in terms of passing and ball-handling. His assist-per-36-minute numbers have gradually increased while the turnovers have decreased. And if the Suns had better spot-up shooters and were not one of the worst teams in the NBA in three-point percentage, perhaps Dragic would have even flashier assist numbers. 

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More and more, it looks as if Dragic was a perfect replacement for Steve Nash. While we cannot expect Dragic's game to emulate that of the former Sun and future Hall of Famer, it is encouraging to see that Dragic improves as a passer every day.

And yet, passing and scoring are not the only areas that have improved. Dragic has also seen his defense improve over the years, mostly because he is now a much smarter defender.

In Dragic's rookie season, he averaged 4.3 fouls per 36 minutes, a huge number for a point guard. Sometimes, a large number of fouls is seen as a sign of aggressive, lockdown defense. But in Dragic's case, he would reach in and ultimately fail to force any extra turnovers.

This past season, Dragic put up a new career-high in both steals and blocks per game, all while lowering his foul total. That means that he has found a way to play aggressive defense and force turnovers while staying out of foul trouble and keeping the offense from reaching the free-throw line for easy points.

Charges should also be accounted for here. In the 2010-11 season, Dragic took zero charges. Now, in his second stint with Phoenix, he took 20.

Twenty charges is an average of far less than one per game, so that may not seem like a big deal. However, it means that Dragic was not afraid to take contact on the defensive end for the good of the team, and more importantly, it means that he took 20 high-percentage shots away from the opposing offense using nothing other than smart defense. 

Overall, we have gradually seen Dragic commit fewer fouls while he forces more turnovers. The graph below shows Dragic's fouls vs. defensive plays (steals, blocks and charges combined) per 40 minutes. 

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As Dragic ages, he has become a much smarter basketball player. He now has a wide array of skills in his arsenal, and he has become an all-around player with the ability to score 25 points, dish out 10 assists or play great defense in any game.

He still isn't an elite player, and he certainly isn't a franchise go-to superstar who can lead the Suns back to the playoffs. If the Suns are to become relevant again, they will need to surround Dragic with other talent.

But Dragic keeps heading in the right direction, and he has given no indication that he will slow down any time soon. As a 27-year-old, Dragic has the opportunity to continue to develop into an All-Star guard within the next couple years.

You could argue that the Suns could do better, and that there are elite point guards out there who Phoenix should chase.

But we just saw Dragic endure a 29-53 season, one that was surely even more difficult for him than it was for Suns fans. In that time, he never complained once, and he gave full effort every single night despite the obstacles that surrounded him.

He has a perfect blend of great work ethic, leadership skills and on-court talent, and there is no one more suited to lead the Phoenix Suns through the dark ages. 

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