Filling the shoes of a future NBA Hall-of-Famer is no easy task. So instead of trying to replace his old mentor Steve Nash, Goran Dragic has only one job now that he’s back with the Phoenix Suns: be Goran Dragic.
“He was here before and he really understands what I want in a point guard,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “The big thing that I try to make him understand is that he’s not here to replace Steve Nash, he’s here to play like Goran Dragic plays. So I think because of that he’s much more relaxed and he’s playing with much more confidence.”
Dragic, a Slovenian native who returns to the Suns after becoming a restricted free agent this summer, is coming off a breakout season with the Houston Rockets. Dragic started in 28 games there, including the last 26 of the season, filling in for an injured Kyle Lowry. During that time he posted impressive averages of 18.0 points, 8.4 assists and 1.8 steals per game.
But Dragic’s success in a starting role hasn’t gone to his head. If anything, it’s reaffirmed his emphasis on consistency.
“I know that last year was only about 30 games I was a starter but this season’s going to be the whole season of 82 games,” he said. “So I’ll just try to be solid on defense and offense and try to play for my teammates.”
On a team with a lot of new and young faces, Gentry said he doesn’t know who will step up as a leader without veterans Steve Nash and Grant Hill. But he was ready to admit that signing Dragic to a four-year deal allows “the Dragon” to bring his particular skills to a squad in need of a quality starting point guard.
“I think he’s very athletic, I think he’s unbelievably fast with the ball up the court, I think his decision-making has gotten a ton better and I think his shooting has improved,” Gentry said. “So those are the areas I just want him to be himself and play the way he’s capable of playing.”
How Dragic works with Marcin Gortat on the pick-and-roll this season will also be crucial to Phoenix’s success, as Nash and Gortat working screens became the team’s bread and butter last season. Dragic said it’s been a learning process, but that they’re steadily building better chemistry.
“I still have to learn what his game is,” he said. “I know he’s really good when he sets screens and pops to the basket, but every practice is better and better. If I’m going to play right with Gortat, that’s going to open up a lot of options, especially if I can get a ball to him where he can operate down in the post. And if the weak side is going to rotate he’s going to pass the ball out and it will be much easier for me and for our shooters.”
But despite the learning process, Dragic is happy to be back in Phoenix, where he was a fan favorite off the bench behind Nash.
“This is my second home,” he said. “I get the opportunity here to start in the NBA and I’m really grateful for that. But it feels great to be back. I know the city, the people and the organization so it’s much easier for me this year and I think it’s going to be a fun year.”
With all of the fun of being back in a familiar city and bonding with new teammates, there’s still an undeniable amount of pressure on Dragic with the starting job in his hands. But despite the expectations of a fan base hoping for someone to replace Steve Nash, Dragic sees it differently.
“When I first got drafted here, everyone was asking me, ‘Why don’t you try to play like Steve Nash?’ I mean, nobody can,” he said. “He’s one of the best point guards in the league and I realized when I got traded that I have to stick with my game, I have to play my game. I’m going to try to do that this year and just try to be myself and play Goran Dragic’s game.”
Although hopes are high for Dragic in a starting role, not many experts are predicting the Suns to go very far this season. So instead of focusing on individual expectations for himself, Dragic wants to set the bar high for his team.
“We have to play every game 100 percent. We’re a young team and we have to battle every night,” he said. “I know that a lot of people don’t expect us to be in the playoffs this year, but why not? This is my goal this season. We have to start strong and finish strong.”