How Goran Dragic Made "The Leap"

Barry Gossage/NBAE

Leandro Barbosa’s locker is the furthest to the left, wedged between the adjacent wall and the locker of teammate Goran Dragic.

After his first home game back with the Suns, Barbosa saw the mass of media approach Dragic, who had just turned in an 18-point, 10-rebound, seven-assist performance against the Lakers.

Had Barbosa stayed where he was, he would nearly have been forced back into his locker. He opted for the quick escape to give the various reporters and journalists room to surround his teammate, and waved off Dragic’s apologetic look in the process.

In what has since become a near-nightly occurrence, Barbosa returned to his locker only after the many-on-one Q&A session with Dragic was done.

When asked later about the nearly constant swirl of media attention that now surrounds him, Dragic tried to fend it off.

“I’m still the same guy,” Dragic quietly protested.

In many ways, he is.

Barbosa, on the other hand gets it. He played with Dragic when the Slovenian guard was a wide-eyed 21-year-old. Times were simpler then. A second-round pick and rookie playing behind an All-Star point guard, Dragic simply wanted to perform well enough to 1) keep playing and 2) earn confidence from his teammates and coaching staff.

No. Dragic is not “the same guy”, at least not in that regard.

“He’s very, very different,” Barbosa said. “He’s the man. It’s his team right now.”

THE LEAP

For nearly a week after the All-Star reserves were announced on Jan. 30, Dragic dealt with every possible variation of the same question.

“How did you feel about not being named to the All-Star team?”

“Were you disappointed you weren’t an All-Star?”

“Do you feel you should have made the All-Star team?”

As repetitive and jarring as those questions must have been, it was also proof of Dragic’s rise from backup point guard to starter to borderline star in the league.

The latter step is perhaps the only surprising one. Dragic had proven himself to be a solid starter over his last two seasons, one in Houston, the other his first year back in Phoenix.

He went a half-step above solid to start the 2013-14 campaign, sharing the backcourt and, subsequently, identical stat lines with newcomer Eric Bledsoe. They averaged 18 points and six assists per game each, often subbing in one for the other to become an admirable tag-team, though the individual recognition was still slow in coming.

Then Bledsoe went down, victim of a necessary knee surgery that would keep him out for at least a couple months. With the Suns’ dual guard threat halved, opposing teams figured to gear their defenses further toward stopping Dragic, which would in turn halt Phoenix’s offense entirely.

The opposite occurred. Dragic scored 33 points in the first game after Bledsoe’s knee surgery. He’s been nearly unstoppable since.

The Suns followed the leader and refused to fold. When Bledsoe went out, Phoenix was fifth in the Western Conference. Eighteen games later, they’re still tied for sixth.

Their continued odds-defying run fueled Dragic’s All-Star chances. When he didn’t make the cut, a reporter asked Suns Head Coach Jeff Hornacek if he thought his star guard should have been awarded a spot in New Orleans.

“He’s definitely proved that he’s right at that level,” Hornacek said. “When Eric goes out, we needed him to step it up even more as the lone point guard. He’s scored, pushed the ball. His defense has gotten much better, I think, since last year. He’s playing a great all-around game.”

SCORING

Here’s a look at Dragic’s scoring/shooting stats since 2010:

2010-11: 7.5 ppg, 43.5 FG%, 36.1 3FG%, 52.4 True Shooting Percentage

2011-12: 11.7 ppg, 46.2 FG%, 33.7 3FG%, 56.7 True Shoting Percentage

2012-13: 14.7 ppg, 44.3 FG%, 31.9 3FG%, 54.0 True Shooting Percentage

2013-14: 20.1 ppg, 50.6 FG%, 39.2 3FG%, 60.6 True Shooting Percentage

The straight-up scoring is obviously up, and has been since the end of Dragic’s first stint in Phoenix. The eye-popping difference, however, lies in his efficiency. Despite attempting 2.3 shots per game more this season (that adds up over 82 games), the sixth-year guard is shooting a whopping six percent better from the field.

Let’s simplify this: Dragic is the only guard in the league to average at least 20 points per game and shoot at least 50 percent from the field.

“Really, I think that where he’s taken that next step is the shot,” Hornacek said. “In the past, when he started penetrating and took that step-back jump shot, you were like, ‘okay, he might make it, he might not.’ Now every time he shoots it I think he’s going to make it. He’s shot a high percentage of that.”

Here’s the crazy part: Dragic’s efficiency went up after Bledsoe went out with his knee injury. Despite the heavier work load and scouting reports gearing up even more on him as the main threat in the Suns’ offense, Dragic is burning opponents more consistently than ever.

Since 2014 arrived, he’s shooting 53.3 percent overall and 45.3 percent from three-point range. Again, this is coming from a guard who was labeled anything but a shooter when he entered the league in 2008.

There’s a reason for that, too, though.

“When I came to the league, back in Europe I was so much faster than the other guys, I was always penetrating,” Dragic said “I didn’t use my jump shot. When I came to the league it was tough to get to the basket. All those guys, they went under the pick-and-roll. It was long threes, especially for me coming from Europe.”

The three-pointers have been huge, but Dragic’s bread-and-butter has been his mid-range shot. Whether it’s coming off pick-and-rolls or sizing up bigger opponents on the switch and then stepping back for the jumper, he’s been lethal from 16 to 24 feet (50.0 percent on the season).

Combine the improved three-point shooting and the way-above-average mid-range game with his 63 percent clip in the paint, and Dragic has an answer for nearly every look the defense throws at him.

“That’s just experience,” Hornacek said. “It’s him seeing what’s going on. I think his shooting has improved where he can take it all the way to the basket or he can do a step-back [jumper] or now he’s making threes. The combination of that is what makes him got to the next level.”

PUSHING THE BALL

Here are the top players in the league in individual fast break points per game that have played at least 30 games this season:

James Harden (6.1 FBPpg)

LeBron James (5.9)

John Wall (5.8)

Kevin Durant (5.6)

Goran Dragic (5.4)

First of all, it's impossible to ignore the elite company of that group. Secondly, over 25 percent of Dragic’s points come solely in transition. That’s an obvious emphasis from both he and Hornacek, who has preached “run, run, run” since Day 1 of training camp.

Dragic has never run this much, even in his reserve days in Phoenix when his sole purpose was the push the tempo off the bench. If you pro-rate his fast break points average to a per-36 minutes baseline, 2013-14 is still 1.4 transition points better than his next-best seasonal output in that category (2011-12).

The team’s collective commitment to speed, Dragic said, is the biggest reason for their startling success.

“I think we’re running more,” Dragic said. “Even when they score, we get the ball quick out of bounds and we just push the ball. We put a lot more pressure on their defense….usually, let’s say third or fourth quarter, they get really tired. That’s our biggest advantage.”

DEFENSE

There was some concern before the season began that Dragic would be exploited by bigger, more natural two-guards while playing next to Eric Bledsoe.

Hornacek’s substitution patterns helped minimize some of the threat. The two point guards would usually start and finish the game together, but alternated running the offense for the middle 24-30 minutes of the game.

Even when Dragic found himself matched up against shooting guards, it wasn’t nearly as detrimental as feared. According to Synergy Sports, Dragic has only been posted up 20 times all season. Sixteen of those post-ups ended in shot attempts, and only seven of those found the bottom of the basket. That’s a subpar 43.8 percent shooting by opponents who consider Dragic an easy victim on the low block.

This isn’t a surprise after seeing him play in EuroBasket 2013. The situation was very similar with the Slovenian national team, which often had Dragic assigned to the bigger member of the opponents’ backcourt. He’s usually aware when they want to post him up, and does an excellent job of fronting his defender and denying the initial entry pass.

When the the would-be post-up guard does get the ball, he finds out Dragic’s 6-3, 190-pound frame is much more sturdy and stubborn than initially thought.

In more conventional defensive settings, the Slovenian playmaker is even better. He’s holding opponents to just 38.5 percent shooting, including an ice-cold 30.6 percent when they attempt to take Dragic one-on-one in isolation.

ALL-AROUND GAME

Consider this bomb-shell first unearthed by ESPN.com’s Marc Stein in last week’s power rankings:

“Four players averaged 22-plus points, 6-plus assists and 4-plus rebounds in January. Only one of those four is not an All-Star. Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and James Harden will all be in New Orleans. Goran Dragic will not.”

But there’s more to this than a one-month sample. For the season, Dragic is averaging 20.1 points, 6.0 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.3 steals per contest.

To put that in context, there are only four other players in the league who average at least 20 points, six assists, three rebounds and one steal per game: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving.

James and Dragic are the only ones from that group who also shoot at least 50 percent from the field.

And for those who raise an eyebrow at Dragic’s low-key presence among the high-profile stars, know that his confidence has risen as much as his game.

“I’m more relaxed,” Dragic said. “I know the situation, everything. I know how the opponents are going to guard me. I’m just more relaxed. It feels like I’m playing basketball with my friends back home. No pressure.”

That’s quite the difference from his early years, when the pressure was felt all too often. It wasn’t until Dragic’s well-documented “coming-out” party against the Spurs – 23 fourth-quarter points in Game 3 of the 2010 playoffs – that star potential became a mere possibility.

Even then, it took him another four years’ worth of earning a starting role, then embracing that role, to flourish to the degree he has.

“You get more playing time, you’re not worried about those minutes,” Dragic said. “Let’s say if you play 20, 15 minutes, that’s more pressure because you have to do well in those kind of minutes so you can get more minutes in the next game.”

“Now I’m just more relaxed. I know what I can do, what the team can do and it’s just having fun.”