The Curious Career Of Goran Dragic: How Good Will He Be For The Phoenix Suns?

Expect a little bit more of this than we've been used to seeing out of our point guard.

Phoenix Suns fans are very familiar with the up and down career of Goran Dragic. The Slovenian point guard was a relative unknown before the San Antonio Spurs drafted him for the Suns in the second round of the 2008 NBA Draft.

Dragic’s career got off to a rough start under then head coach Terry Porter. His numbers as a rookie backing up Steve Nash, Dragic was pretty bad, only playing 13.2 minutes per game and shooting under 40 percent from the field.

Dragic turned things around in his second season and developed into a solid back-up point guard for the Suns. He got better and better as the season went on, and had his coming-out party with a 23-point fourth quarter performance against the rival Spurs in the playoffs.

Then came the 2010-11 season. Bright Siders were very high on Dragic after his performance in the playoffs and many felt the Suns had finally found not only a dependable back-up to Nash, but his eventual successor as well. Unfortunately, Dragic responded to the love by having the worst season of his career, arguably even more terrible than his rookie year.

The 2009-10 bench that he was so comfortable playing with was blown up and Dragic suddenly had new running mates that he didn’t jell with nearly as well. Dragic’s success also meant teams began to take notice of him and he struggled to beat the scouting report. The driving lanes weren’t there. His shot wouldn’t fall. Teammates weren’t where he thought they would be and he turned the ball over (a lot). Everything went wrong and Dragic’s confidence was shattered.

Just like Dragic lost confidence in himself, the organization lost confidence in the young Slovenian as well. The team felt like they still had a shot to make the playoffs if they could get better back-up point guard play and it had become clear that it wasn’t going to come from Dragic. The Suns decided to cut ties with Dragic and shipped him off to Houston (along with a first round draft pick) in return for Aaron Brooks, a former Sixth Man of the Year and the man Lance Blanks and Lon Babby hoped would push the Suns over the top and into the postseason.

Phoenix still missed the playoffs and Dragic’s career was revitalized with the change of scenery as he played very well backing up Kyle Lowry in Houston. The trade looked even worse when Brooks signed to play in China with no NBA opt-out clause right before the lockout ended, meaning he was out for the entire year.

The Suns were forced to sign Sebastian Telfair and Ronnie Price to battle it out for the back-up point guard job (and what a battle it was!) while the Rockets benefited from excellent play by Dragic. When Kyle Lowry went down Dragic was inserted into the starting line-up and stepped his play up another level, putting up big numbers and keeping the Rockets in the playoff hunt despite the team being decimated by injuries.

The Rockets failed to make the playoffs, but Dragic's performance was enough to convince the Suns to bring him home as the successor to Nash who had moved on. The plan may have taken a detour, but Dragic was right back where the fans hoped he would be after releasing the Dragon against the Spurs in that fourth quarter.

But what can we expect from Dragic as the full-time starting point guard for the Suns? To get a better understanding of what kind of player Dragic is now, I did a little research. I looked up some of his statistics on sites such as Basketball-Reference.com, NBA.com, TheNBAGeek.com and MySynergySports.com. In order to make better sense of these numbers, I also watched hundreds of Dragic's plays on offense and defense last year on Synergy. Here are the results of my work.

Goran Dragic: Starting Point Guard

Dragic started only 28 games in 2011-12, which doesn’t seem like a whole lot. But he averaged 36.5 minutes per game in those contests which equals 1022 minutes on the court, and most of those were with and against starters. Compare that to the 1442 minutes Dragic spent primarily as a reserve in 2009-10. Dragic has proved more in his last two months as a starter than he did during the entire season as a quality back-up. I don’t think we need to fear another collapse like we have seen from Dragic before.

Take a look at Dragic’s numbers as a starter, then compare them to what he put up in his 14 games in April:

GS MPG PPG FG% 3FG% FT% APG RPG SPG
Games Started 28 36.5 18.0 .490 .379 .839 8.4 3.5 1.8
Games in April 14 36 18.9 .464 .329 .842 7.7 3.5 1.8

By the time April rolled around, teams had gotten more used to Dragic and focused on him a little more. As you can see from the numbers, he seemed to adjust and handle it much better than when he was younger. His field goal percentages and assists went down a bit, but his scoring increased. It looks like Dragic took over more of the scoring load (which is understandable considering the injuries the Rockets suffered) and had to take more difficult shots, but the rest of his game stayed pretty constant.

Now let’s take a look at how he got those numbers. While watching his plays, I noticed some tendencies, go-to moves and also a few strengths and weaknesses.

Pick-And-Roll Ball Handler

Dragic ran the pick-and-roll on over a quarter of his offensive possessions, and while he's not Steve Nash he is pretty good at it. Dragic scored 0.81 points per possession (PPP), good for a ranking of 64. He shot 46.4 percent and 39.3 percent from deep, but he also turned it over 27.1 percent of the time.

Dragic may be a pretty good pick-and-roll ball handler, but he has a completely different approach than Nash. The older point guard is much more methodical, taking his time, letting the defense pick their poison and then taking whatever they choose to give him. Dragic is much more aggressive. He comes off screens hard and is looking to attack right away.

Nash was looking to hit the man rolling to the basket; shooting or kicking out to the corner were secondary options. Dragic, on the other hand, is using the screen mostly to get separation to drive the lane or, if the defense goes under, to step-back for the jumper.

Both men turned the ball over pretty often. With Nash, his turnovers usually came when defenses trapped him hard coming off the screen or when he tried to force a pass that there wasn’t quite room for. Dragic’s passes were off target more often than Nash’s, and he also tried to do too much at times and got himself trapped with nowhere to go resulting in turnovers and bad shot attempts.

Dragic is a good pick-and-roll player and we'll likely see him run this play a lot, but don’t expect to see the same pick-and-roll we've watched for the last eight years. Things are going to be a bit different.

Transition

Dragic really likes to get out and run, which he did on 21 percent of his plays. And for good reason, as he scored 1.3 PPP on the break and ranked inside the top 50 at 49th overall. He shot 69.8 percent from the field and connected on four of his seven 3-point attempts. Dragic managed to keep his turnovers down as well, coughing the ball up on only 12.1 percent of his transition possessions, which equals out to only 21 total turnovers in transition all year.

Dragic is fast and athletic and looking to run at every opportunity, either leading the break himself or taking off down the court when one of the other guards gets the ball. He has a knack for forcing turnovers to get the break started, either deflecting his man's pass or stepping into the passing lanes while away from the ball.

Dragic has a lot of tricks in his arsenal, and some of his favorite moves are going around the back to get past his man or finishing with some athletic scoop shots, floaters and layups. He's also pretty good at knifing into the paint and splitting the defense to get to the rim. He'll even pull out the occasional two-handed throwdown to get the crowd on their feet.

However, sometimes Dragic gets going too fast. He can outrun his teammates and get himself into trouble at times when the defense gets back in a timely fashion. He doesn't always pull it out when he should, often electing to take it into the paint even when there aren't any driving lanes. Although he has a lot of crafty shots around the basket, he sometimes takes some difficult shots and misses more lay-ups than he probably should.

This Phoenix squad doesn't have the same kind of disruptive wings and shot-blockers that can start the break like Houston did, but Dragic himself should still be able to force some turnovers himself. Expect to see Dragic pushing the pace as often as he can.

Spot-Up

Dragic played some shooting guard alongside Kyle Lowry and Houston let their other perimeter players (namely Kevin Martin, Courtney Lee or Chandler Parsons) handle the ball a little bit, so Dragic spotted up a lot more often than Nash did )19.1 percent of his plays). He's much worse at it, though. Dragic only scored 0.89 PPP, which ranks him 199th. He shot 33.3 percent overall, although he was a little bit better from 3-point range at 34.5 percent.

Dragic is a good shooter, but he’s not great. And catch-and-shoot is not his game; he’s better off the dribble. He looks much more comfortable catching the ball and attacking the basket while spotting up rather than taking the open jumper.

Isolation

Dragic isolated on 15.2 percent of his possessions, a decent amount of which were late clock and broken play situations. Even so, he did pretty well, scoring 0.80 PPP (ranked 83rd). He only shot 34 percent, but that's not all that bad as far as isolation play goes.

Dragic likes to attack in these situation when he can. He has improved his right hand, but he's still a strong lefty and appears much more comfortable going all the way when he can go left.

He has a couple pet moves when in isolation. Dragic is a fan of using the pump fake to get the defender into the air and then jumping into them for the foul. He also relies pretty heavily on the crossover dribble, crossing his man once, twice, even three times on one possession if he has to in order to set them up. If he can't get past his man, he likes to step back for the jumper. He's also pretty good when defenders lay off him and he can dribble into a jump shot.

Dragic can be a bit reckless when he drives and can take some really tough shots, but on the plus side, his drives create plenty of offensive rebounding opportunities for the bigs.

Dragic should be a solid option for the Suns in late clock situations or when we need a bucket. He has the break-down ability that we didn't get much from our guards last year.

Defense

Dragic is a pretty decent overall defender, with 0.80 PPP scored against him, which is ranked 108th. Opponents shot 40.4 percent against him including 30 percent from 3-point range.

He spent 43.3 percent of his possessions defending the pick-and-roll, and his numbers are pretty good: 0.75 points per possession against and a rank of 76. However, from the plays I watched, it looks like Dragic really struggles getting through screens (which is kind of the point of setting screens in the first place, but even so he still doesn't handle them all that well). However, pick-and-roll defense is a two-man game, and he had some pretty good rim protectors in Houston in Samuel Dalembert and Marcus Camby. Thankfully, Marcin Gortat is a pretty good defender too.

Dragic spent over a fifth of his possessions defending spot-up shooters, and he was pretty darn good at it. Opposing players shot just 30.8 percent against him and scored just 0.81 PPP, which ranked him 60th overall. From what I saw, Dragic can get caught ball-watching a lot, but he does a good job of recovering and closing out on shooters to make shots tougher.

Dragic was isolated on 16.3 percent of his defensive possessions and gave up 0.75 PPP (ranked 126th). He does a decent job of staying in front of his man and pushing the player towards his help, and can pressure the ball a little bit if he needs to.

Dragic is not a great defender, but he's solid and can handle his man well enough without being abused. He also has some versatility in who he can guard. He won't lock anyone down, but he's not going to be a liability either.

How good will he be?

According to TheNBAGeek.com, Dragic's scoring, overall and advanced shooting percentages, assists, steals and WP48 are all above average for a point guard, although he fouls and turns the ball over more often as well. As the Synergy numbers above show, he's pretty good in most areas and there isn't much he can't do.

There is still a possibility that he comes crashing back to Earth like he did his first time in Phoenix, but based on all the evidence I've looked at, I don't think that is going to happen. I believe this Goran Dragic is for real and here to stay.

I'd say 16-18 points per game and 7-8 assists per game is a pretty reasonable prediction for this coming season.

Dragic probably isn't going to be named to the All-Star team. However, I do see him on the same tier as say Denver's Ty Lawson -- a good point guard who is in the discussion come All-Star Weekend but doesn't quite crack the list. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Goran Dragic was an excellent addition by the front office and should be a major contributor for the Suns over the next four years. I think it is safe to say that the Dragon is back and ready to put on a show.

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