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Friday April 13, 2012 2:32 PM

Steve Nash Dishes On Goran Dragic

Suns' superstar point guard discusses the growth and development of Goran Dragic

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com




HOUSTON - They are two different players to be sure. On the one hand, you have Goran Dragic: all kinetic energy and unbridled youth, racing up and down the court; a whirling dervish of aggressive, attacking and frenzied playmaking. On the other, there’s Steve Nash, the master surgeon: every movement purposeful in his precise, methodical and clinical dissection of opposing defenses.

But look closer and there are similarities, too; whispers, hints and shadows that reveal just how closely the pupil paid attention to the master during his apprenticeship in Phoenix. It’s there in the way Dragic maintains his dribble when driving into and out of the lane on his forays toward the basket, and it can be seen in his knack for knowing all the subtle, artful methods of manipulating the pick-and-roll to his favor.

Of late the resemblance between the two point guards can even be witnessed in the numbers as well. In his 20 games as a starter this season, Dragic is averaging 18.2 points and 8.7 assists per game, while shooting better than 50 percent from the field and nearly 42 percent from beyond the arc -- stats that stand up remarkably well to Nash’s MVP prime with the Suns.

And while it’s beyond premature to put Dragic in Nash’s class at this point -- the Suns’ superstar is a two-time Most Valuable Player, an eight-time All-Star and destined to enter the Hall of Fame as one of the greatest point guards of all time -- it speaks to Dragic’s extraordinary recent rise with the Rockets that his name is even in the conversation at all. Perhaps most impressive of all: Nash, Dragic’s teammate and mentor during his two-and-a-half seasons with the Suns, says none of this comes as a surprise to him at all.

“He’s obviously playing great but I think we all expected this out of him,” says Nash, when asked for his thoughts on the growth and development of Dragic since seeing him leave Phoenix. “We’re happy to see it obviously but we knew he was a really good player and that he’d have a great career so it’s fun to see.

“I think as all rookies do, especially those coming over from a different culture, it took him time to assimilate and understand that the rules are different and off the court life is different. It took him time to develop but you could see that he’s a terrific athlete and as his jump shot came around and his decision making became more comfortable, he had lots of potential.”

Nash, not surprisingly given his penchant for shrugging off accolades, brushes aside any suggestion that he is at all responsible for Dragic’s success. The 25-year-old Slovenian, however, wastes little time setting the record straight on that subject. Nash was one of the players Dragic admiringly watched from afar while growing up overseas, and he still savors the moment he found out that his NBA career would begin by playing alongside one of his childhood heroes.

“I still remember the night when I got drafted and I knew I was going to go to Phoenix Suns,” recalls Dragic. “My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to play with Steve Nash.’ Then when I came to Phoenix I was really nervous because I didn’t know what kind of person is Steve. Then when the first time he talked with me I was really surprised; he’s really awesome. He’s a great, great basketball player and he helped me a lot. I was really amazed and I would say that’s one of the better moments in my career when I met Steve.

“(He taught me how) to be professional on the court and off the court. I was sitting next to him on the plane and every night he was eating healthy and he’s telling me what I have to eat and what not -- just this kind of stuff (note: Dragic says he has never seen Nash eat a cookie). And on the court, of course, just to be myself, how to play pick-and-roll and this kind of stuff.”

Dragic clearly was taking copious notes. This season he is averaging .827 points per possession as the primary ball handler on pick-and-rolls, a number that puts him in the NBA’s 71st percentile according to Synergy Sports. That’s not quite Nash territory (the Suns’ point guard averages .939 points per possession, good for the 87th percentile), but this is also just Dragic’s fourth year in the league and his first extended stint as an NBA starter. He will improve with reps and experience -- just as his mentor did early in his career.

“He plays the game extremely well when he’s on the court and he does a lot of things,” says Nash. “He can affect the game in many ways. He’s an exciting player, he’s a talented player and it’s just exciting to see a good person get an opportunity to succeed and he has ... Bottom line is he’s a great player and we’re seeing that now.”

The entire league has taken notice. Dragic is the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week and his emergence is one of the primary reasons the Rockets find themselves right in the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture. And since no proper master-apprentice storyline could be complete without some sort of showdown, perhaps it’s only fitting that tonight’s game between the Suns and Rockets would have so much at stake with the two friends residing at the center of it all, desperate to lift their clubs to victory in a game with such significant postseason implications.

“I went to dinner last night with Steve, Grant (Hill) and (Jared) Dudley and we were just talking about old times,” says Dragic. “They were saying they have to win this game and I told them, ‘No way. We have to clinch the playoffs.’ It’s going to be a huge game. They want to make playoffs, we want to make playoffs -- it’s two really tough teams and who’s going to be more focused on the court tonight is who is going to win.

“But we are great friends. Steve and Grant are two of my role models when I was growing up, and it was just an honor that I could share those moments with them and to be able to play with them.”

And now, to play against them as well; an opportunity to show how much he’s grown as a player, and a chance to remind his former teammates of the greatness they saw in him all along.

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