There And Back Again
Some sports performances can transcend a career. Suns fans know this more than most, with the memories of what Gar Heard did against the Celtics and what Rex Chapman did against the SuperSonics serving as perfect examples of how quickly one game can transform a Suns player into a Suns legend.
When Goran Dragic scored 23 points in just 12 minutes against San Antonio in the 2010 Western Conference Semifinals, he too had his name forged into Suns lore. But perhaps more important than helping Phoenix to an eventual sweep over their arch rival was what the outing meant for the future. The coming-of-age performance by the young, Slovenian playmaker gave hope that the Suns had finally found a potential heir to Steve Nash’s throne should the day come when the two-time MVP was no longer wearing a Suns jersey.
But as Dragic quickly discovered, the road from point A to point B isn’t always a direct one. Less than one year after that unforgettable performance in San Antonio, the guard’s path took an unexpected turn when he was sent to Houston via a midseason trade with the Rockets.
“It was tough,” Dragic said of the transition. “You can say it’s a business, but it’s still hard to say goodbye to teammates and friends. But I think for everybody, there comes a point in your career where you have to be strong and look forward, and that was what I decided I needed to do when going to Houston.”
With the Rockets, Dragic would again be asked to come off the bench, this time playing behind another – albeit younger – point guard in Kyle Lowry.
“I don’t think the role of backing up Kyle was any different than backing up Steve, but the situation was definitely different,” Dragic said. “But whether I was in Phoenix or in Houston, my mindset was on trying to get better and better.”
Like Dragic, Lowry was also improving, and, come the 2011-12 season, he was not only making a strong case to be named an All-Star but also had his ballclub contending for a postseason berth. The latter of those two appeared to derail, however, when in early March, Lowry suffered a bacterial infection. After years of backing up an Iron Man in Nash, Dragic was suddenly being handed they keys to his own team of Avengers. It was an opportunity he did not wait long to capitalize on.
In his first start in place of Lowry, the Slovenian scored 23 points and handed out eight assists in a 112-106 win over the Nets. During the next several games, the play of Dragic not only helped ease the pain of Lowry’s loss but helped the Rockets maintain their position in the standings. The former Sun was playing the most consistent basketball of his NBA career, and only appeared to rise to the occasion when his ballclub faced off against some of the league’s most elite teams. In a game at Los Angeles against the Lakers on April 6, Dragic contributed a double-double with 26 points and 11 assists, en route to a 112-107 victory. At Dallas on April 18, he scored 20 points and handed out 10 dimes.
No longer needing to look over his shoulder and wonder when he would be called back to the bench, Dragic blossomed in Houston, unleashing some of the potential his former Suns teammates say they always knew what he was capable of.
“When he left, I think everybody expected him to continue maturing as a player, and once he got the opportunity to do that, he definitely shined,” Suns forward Jared Dudley said. “When you’re a starter, you have a little more time to find your groove, and I think being the starter in Houston allowed Goran to stay a little calmer. “
Although the Rockets fell short of reaching the postseason, Dragic had still managed to prove what kind of floor general he was capable of being when given ample playing time and a little bit of freedom. A free agent following the end of the season, Dragic was now ready to partake in the freedom of deciding where he would like to play out the next chapter of his career.
“I was looking at a lot of different things,” Dragic said of choosing a new NBA home. “I wanted a place where I would be comfortable, but I also wanted to know what that team’s plans were and who I’d be playing with.”
Like Dragic, the Suns were also in the midst of a difficult decision-making process. With the growing possibility that Nash would not be returning to Phoenix, the front office needed to decide in which direction they wanted to look moving forward.
“When we thought about where our franchise was and where we were headed in this new era of Suns basketball, we thought about who we wanted to be our pilot moving forward, and all roads led back to Goran,”said Lon Babby, Suns President of Basketball Operations.
The organization did not hesitate to show their interest in the former Phoenician. On July 2, the team rolled out the orange carpet for Dragic – literally – when he paid a visit to the Valley at the start of the free agency period. To help welcome him, Suns employees lined up alongside an orange carpet outside of US Airways Center where they greeted the free agent with cheers and high fives.
“I was in shock,” Dragic said of the presentation. “I didn’t expect something like that to be done for me and it was really emotional. I was walking by all of these people who I know and they’re all saying, ‘Goran come home.’ It was definitely a reminder of how many people I know here and how comfortable I am in Phoenix.”
Less than 48 hours later, the point guard made a verbal commitment to return to Phoenix, where he would take over the starting duties in lieu of a departing Nash. It’s a return that has been embraced by everybody in the Suns family, including the head coach who had a hand in trading for the second rounder on draft night.
“I have a great relationship with Goran, so bringing him back here was obviously special for me,” Alvin Gentry said. “The thing I like most is the intensity and competitiveness that he plays with. I think it’s going to be very important to what we’re trying to do here and I think he’s going to be a great leader for our team.”
Dragic did not wait long to exhibit what type of leader he is capable of being, providing a brief demonstration just weeks after signing his new contract. While stopping by NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, Dragic was in attendance to watch the debut of Suns rookie Kendall Marshall. After seeing the youngster struggle, the elder point guard asked his coach if he could speak with Marshall about the performance.
“Goran wanted to talk to Kendall and explain to him that it wasn’t a big deal that he didn’t play as well as he’d have liked to,” Gentry recalled. “Goran wanted to tell him that he played so poorly in his first summer league game that he went back to his hotel room and cried for an hour after the game. It was just an example of something that Goran probably wouldn’t have done a few years ago.”
Suns forward Luis Scola, who played with Dragic in Houston, had a front row seat to watching the playmaker’s maturation process, and said he enjoyed being a part of the process.
“He’s a great player and we were able to build a good relationship both on and off the court,” the 6-9 Argentinian said. “In Houston, I got the chance to really see him grow as a player and I’m very excited about getting the chance to play with him again.”
As far as the roundabout path taken by Dragic, the consensus amongst those in the Suns family is that the journey was not in vain.
“Everybody was upset when he was traded but I think in the long run, it’s going to be something which works out better for him,” Gentry said. “He went to Houston and had the opportunity to play a lot of minutes, and I think that will work out better for him than it would have playing behind Steve and then being expected to just step in for him right after he was gone.”
Dudley agreed, “He needed more minutes and that was going to be tough here playing behind Steve. I’m someone who believes that if you want someone to learn, you throw them into the fire, and I think because he was thrown into that fire in Houston, he’ll be a better player now in Phoenix.”
Dragic also believes that his time spent with the Rockets was for the best - a theory represented by the No. 1 that he will now don on his jersey to symbolize the “fresh start” he is looking forward to in Phoenix.
“I think it worked out best for me because it gave me the opportunity to play more minutes and to show that I can play in this league,” Dragic said. “I gained a lot of confidence in Houston and showed that I’m capable of being a leader both on and off the floor. In the past I was a little shyer on the court and didn’t do much talking, but now it’s much different.”
From the ancient myths of Gilgamesh and Odysseus to the more modern tales of Ferris Bueller and Katniss Everdeen, classic legends often tell of a hero who leaves the comfy confines of home to obtain a great boon. One of the most popular examples of this hero’s journey takes place in J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel There And Back Again, or as it is more commonly known – The Hobbit. The epic features Bilbo Baggins, who leaves behind his cottage in pursuit of dragon-guarded treasures. As is often the case, Bilbo returns not only with external riches, but internal ones as well. In the case of Bilbo, he picked up a fancy ring along with an experience worthy enough of being scribed into a book.
Goran Dragic’s stop in Houston may not have required the slaying of any dragons or the theft of any treasure, but that isn’t to say it didn’t help him in the maturation process all point guards need if they’re to take their game to the next level. Hopefully for the Suns and their fans, the experience of that rocket launch will help lead to the acquisition of the precious ring they’ve been coveting.