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Monday April 9, 2012 7:29 PM

Long Time Coming


Goran Dragic reacts to being named Western Conference Player of the Week

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - Quick story: It’s Saturday morning in Marina del Rey; the kind of glorious, glittering day that Southern California seems to produce as if they simply roll right off the assembly line, and the euphoric effect it produces seems even more so given the Rockets’ riveting road win over the Lakers the night before.

It’s check-out time for the Rockets at the team hotel; already time to stop basking in the afterglow of victory in order to start prepping for the next day’s game against Sacramento. But no can leave the Lakers behind just yet.

On the elevator down to the lobby I run into Rockets Assistant Coach Kelvin Sampson. Naturally, we reminisce about an unforgettable Friday night at Staples as he begins dissecting the key moments as only coaches can: Marcus Camby’s miracle 3-pointer; Luis Scola taking over in the fourth; Chandler Parsons’ D on Kobe. Inevitably, we get to crunch time and Goran Dragic’s latest clutch heroics. A pause. A smile. Then Sampson says without even a hint of hyperbole, “Goran Dragic is my favorite player in the NBA.”

Surely Sampson isn’t alone in that sentiment these days, especially after Dragic was just named a very deserving Western Conference Player of the Week. The rest of the league is rapidly seeing what Sampson and Rockets fans have had the privilege of watching firsthand over the past month: a player who’s grown by leaps in bounds while helping Houston stay firmly in the Western Conference playoff picture despite injuries that decimated the Rockets’ starting backcourt in early March.

Dragic is currently averaging 17.9 points,8.8 assists and 1.89 steals in his 18 totalstarts this season, doing so with a flair that has made him a favorite of both fans and teammates alike.

“He’s fearless,” says Sampson. “He’s a quiet leader. And his teammates have rallied around him.”

Dragic responds to such raves with the unassuming manner of someone whose lifelong dreams are in the process of coming true – which, as it so happens, is exactly what’s presently taking place. The fourth-year guard from Slovenia found out about his Player of the Week honor Monday morning in Portland and hasn’t stopped smiling since.

“Everybody was mentioning that on Twitter,” he says, when asked how he found out about the award. “At first I was surprised. I didn’t know what the people were talking about. And then I got a text message from (Rockets Media Relations Manager) Tracey Hughes telling me that it’s official that I’m Player of the Week for our conference. That means a lot to me. It’s one of those things that you dream about when you’re working hard. I’m really happy but without my teammates I couldn’t do it. They help me a lot and the most important thing is that we’re winning. I don’t care about any awards except that.

“My favorite reaction is probably from the people back home (in Slovenia). Before people were saying, ‘I don’t know if he’s ready for NBA league’ and now they’re saying, ‘Oh, he’s ready, he’s ready! He’s ready to lead a team.’ That means a lot to me because I know a lot of people didn’t believe in me. I was working hard for that moment and now I’ve demonstrated I can play.”

Dragic has done much more than that over the course of the past month. With each big game and highlight reel play he continues to earn the sort of league-wide respect he’s craved since first setting foot in the NBA. Back then he was just a wide-eyed apprentice of sorts to two-time Most Valuable Player Steve Nash. Now he’s sharing Player of the Week honors with another two-time MVP while his former mentor in Phoenix watches with pride from afar.

“For me it is shocking to win the same week as LeBron James. Probably he’s going to win MVP of the league again and to be at the same time the Player of the Week with him is something special. Before I was just dreaming about things like this but now it’s really happening.

“Steve texted me after the game against Los Angeles. He texted me, ‘Way to play, Goran!’ I just texted him back to say thank you. And that I learned from the best.”

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