Q&A With Goran Dragic
Talking playing style, soccer and crunch time shot-making with the Rockets' red-hot point guard
HOUSTON - With all due respect to Charlie Sheen and the “tiger blood” he allegedly possesses, it’s become increasingly clear that whatever plasma courses through his veins pales in comparison to the sanguine stuff inside Goran Dragic. Of course, that should come as little surprise (for so, so, SO many reasons) given that in the rock-paper-scissors world of the mythological animal kingdom, dragon obviously tops tiger every time. And if you’ve been paying attention to what the player occasionally known as El Dragón has been up to of late, it’s rather apparent that Dragic has enough dragon blood in his veins to be considered Head of House Targaryen.
Awful allusions and analogies aside, Dragic’s play since assuming starting point guard duties for the Houston Rockets has been no joke. The fourth-year guard from Slovenia is averaging 15.8 points, 9.7 assists and 1.8 steals per game during his nine starts this season, all while shooting 51.5 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from behind the 3-point line during that time. His production has been a huge reason why the Rockets have been able to weather the storm in the absence of Kyle Lowry, and his aggressive style and full-tilt playmaking have rapidly made him a fan favorite.
Off the court, however, Dragic couldn’t be less dragon-like. He is quiet, laid back, quick with a smile and easy to approach. His friends and teammates call him ‘Gogi.’ So what is responsible for the game-time transformation that sees him switch from Gogi to to El Dragón? Rockets.com’s Jason Friedman went one-on-one with Dragic to find out.
JCF: Let’s start by having you answer a question I get asked by fans all the time. Explain to them why your nickname is Gogi.
GD: That’s from my country. All my friends call me ‘Gogi’ because that’s the short version for Goran.
JCF: Simple enough. But now I want to ask you about the origin of something that’s probably not as easy to explain. You’re a very laid back guy off the court, but on it you play with so much passion and intensity – it’s a very aggressive brand of basketball. Where does that come from?
GD: From my heart (laughs). I always try to play hard as possible to help my team – it doesn’t matter if it’s on defense or offense. I would say when I was young I was playing like that, too.
JCF: Did you play soccer growing up?
GD: My first sport actually was soccer. I practiced for two years then I had a leg injury and after awhile all my friends from my neighborhood were playing basketball, so that’s why I decided to play, too – I didn’t want to be isolated. I wanted to be with my friends having a good time.
JCF: Rockets fans who had the pleasure of watching Hakeem Olajuwon play here in Houston are very familiar with how helpful a soccer background can be. Do you feel like it had a big impact on how you play the game, too?
GD: I don’t know. Soccer helped especially with my footwork. When I played soccer, I was on offense scoring goals – I didn’t pass the ball so much so it probably didn’t help much with being a point guard (laughs). But the footwork really helped me a lot – all the dribbling exercises and everything really helped me.
JCF: Coming into the league and playing with a guy like Steve Nash – another guy with an extensive soccer background – obviously had a profound impact on your development. But when you were growing up in Slovenia which players were you watching and learning from?
GD: When I was a kid I watched Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson – all these great point guards. But then when I was 14, 15-years-old I found a similar guy who played like me – Beno Udrih. He’s lefty too and he played in my hometown so I was a huge fan of his. Then after awhile I saw Manu Ginobili when he was playing in Italy. You know, I’m a lefty – so I like lefties (laughs).
JCF: Well they’re supposedly more creative …
GD: I don’t know about that. But I like to think so.
JCF: You’ve made seven straight starts now; getting ready for No. 8 tonight against Golden State. What’s been the toughest part about the transition going from backup to starter?
GD: It’s a different situation now playing more minutes. I would like to be more solid on defense. I know it’s tough to pressure 35 minutes every game – that’s why I get a little tired and my legs get heavier. But just in general, I need to improve everything. I want the team to win. It doesn’t matter who scores the most points, I just want to run the team better, to involve everybody. If I’m going to do that good then I think this team has a good chance. If everybody is hot, everybody is dangerous, that’s tougher for opponents.
JCF: That’s clearly the formula for success for this team. But it’s also easier said than done, especially during such a unique season when practice time is so limited. Yet I find it fascinating that even with a completely new starting backcourt, you guys seem to have – on the fly, no less – really tapped into and embraced the total team philosophy on offense.
I thought it was really telling during the last game against LA when, after Kobe had hit back-to-back tough shots to tie the game, there was no panic on your end at all; you guys just came down, ran the offense, went through your progressions, worked through your secondary screen-and-rolls until you finally found the shot you were looking for.
GD: Like you said, it’s an interesting season, no time for practice, and we lost our two main guys, Kyle and Kevin. But everybody is working hard to someday get a chance to play as a starter – I did that, Courtney did that, Chase has been coming up huge off the bench – so you know we need all the players we can get. And now I would say we’re playing different basketball than we played one month ago because the ball is going around, everybody touches it, we are not taking the first shot. If you’re open you can take it sometimes but we’d rather move the ball from one side of the floor to the other and just put some pressure on the defense.
Now it’s like two games, against Lakers and against Oklahoma City, we are down more than 10 points late in the fourth quarter and we come back. We are just calm and making our plays, especially on the defensive end. And on offense we are hitting those huge shots and everybody is starting to believe that we can beat a lot of good teams – that we have this ability.
The kind of win that we had against Lakers, that gives you more power to be focused for the next game and to play as hard as possible. Now after winning that game we have to beat Golden State – if we don’t do that it will mean nothing that we beat Lakers. It’s a short season. We still have 19 games left and we have to win as many as possible and make that last push for the playoffs.
JCF: Do you have a specific number in mind – a win total that you feel will ensure a spot in the postseason?
GD: In the West you never know. With our record we would be in playoffs easily in the East. But the West is really tough. I’m not thinking about how many wins we need, just that we still have 19 games left and we need to win as many of them as possible. It would be nice to go 17-2 (laughs).
JCF: Not that you’re greedy or anything …
GD: Yeah, but you never know. Right now we have a home stretch and we need to make the most of those games. And then on the road we have not been so solid, so we need to get some wins away, too.
JCF: Have you paid any attention at all to the numbers you’ve been posting as a starter?
GD: No, because I don’t want to see those numbers and be tempted to relax. I don’t know, I just want to play hard as possible, to give 100 percent every game, to run the team and to find open guys to involve everyone in the game. If I’m going to be successful in those kind of things then we’re going to have a good chance to win because then everybody is dangerous and we’re going to have more options on offense. I’m just trying to give everything I’ve got to this team.
JCF: Are you at all surprised by the success you’ve had so far as a starter?
GD: A little bit.
GD: I would say I know that I can do those things because that was my dream and I had a couple big games with the Suns in the playoffs. But when you’re coming in from the bench, you have those certain minutes like 10 minutes then you go out, then maybe you get another 10 minutes, and that’s tough – it can be tough to do something crazy good in 10 minutes. But now when you have more consistent minutes you’re not rushing your shot, you’re trying to set up the offense to make your teammates better and if you’re open you take that shot.
I was a little surprised that the team reacted the way they did around me. I have really great chemistry with my teammates and they have really helped me. Some teams when the first point guard goes down, they don’t react like that. So I was really amazed by how my teammates have reacted to the way I run the team and I’m really happy.
JCF: Tell me about the mindset you have toward taking big shots in crunch time. That shot you hit against the Lakers was very similar to the one you knocked down at the end of regulation in Boston, except of course …
GD: Yeah, too bad (laughs). I wish I would have been behind the line to shoot a 3 there, but it all happened so quick and I saw Kevin Garnett running to block the shot so I just released it as fast as possible. It went in and was great, but obviously would have been much better if it had been a 3.
JCF: Well you got a reprieve against the Lakers and left no doubt about being behind the 3-point line there. So what’s going through your mind in the moments leading up to the ball finding you for those big shots?
GD: I’m trying to be positive, especially when we’re in the huddle before we get back on the court. I’m thinking positive just to know that if the ball comes to me I’m going to make it. I don’t want bad thoughts or to think about what happens if I miss. If you’re thinking like that you’re for sure going to miss.
You have to take those kind of shots. In the Lakers game, there were two or three seconds left on the shot clock, so I just got the ball raised, shot it, and as soon as I released it I knew the ball was going in. So like I said, I just try to be positive and play hard as possible because if you’re playing hard every night, something good is going to happen.
JCF: Do you have a preference in those late-game situations to take a timeout to draw up a play or would you rather just race down the floor to try to attack the defense instead of giving the opponent time to set up?
GD: I would say sometimes it’s better to just take the ball and go in the flow of the game and make some good plays. We are professionals; everybody can break his man down one-on-one and find open guys. We have this quality especially from Courtney and also Luis in the low-post. I think that’s good because other teams don’t know who is going to shoot the last ball – that puts pressure on the defense.
Then sometimes if maybe the last three or four times down the floor you didn’t execute right, then I think maybe that’s a good time to call a timeout just to relax, stop and let the coach put all the people in the right spots so you can run the offense the right way and try to get an open shot. It just depends on the situation.