By Josh Greene, Suns.com
Posted: Feb. 23, 2010
Like most geographic transplants, Slovenian Goran Dragic admits his overseas driving skills are still a work in progress.
Unlike most geographic transplants, the second-year point guard is referring to basketball.
"In Europe, nobody was blocking my drive to the basket," Dragic laughed. "So if you beat the first line easily, you don't have to step back to shoot the three-pointer. Here, everybody jumps so high and is so strong, it's tougher to get into the lane. That's why I've been working with the assistant coaches here on my shot. I think my shot is much better than last year."
In addition to his jumper, there are a lot of noticeable improvements for the 23-year-old midway through his second year in the NBA.
Nearly doubling his scoring average in 2009-10, as well as matching virtually all his rookie statistical totals by the 2010 All-Star break, a noticeably more laid back No. 2 has been taking to the court this season.
"I don't feel any pressure," Dragic said. "Last year I wasn't confident, so I had a lot of weight on my shoulders. Now I'm relaxed and just playing my game. If you have confidence, it's easier with everything – whether it's making passes or making threes."
Setting personal bests with 32 points and six three-pointers in the January 25 game vs. the Jazz, Dragic reached double figures in scoring 14 times through the first half of 2009-10. He also appeared in at least 10 minutes of action in all but two games through the first 46 contests this season.
"Minutes mean a lot to every player," the guard said, "especially the ones playing in those crucial moments that count. If you're playing well and your team is winning, that's great. Last year was my first season, so you have to use that 'garbage time' and play hard, demonstrate what you can do and just improve your game. Last year for me was important, but this year I've played more minutes and been out on the court when the game is on the line."
Dragic's overall improvement on the court hasn't been lost on his teammates, either.
"He's getting minutes, but he's also made big plays in big games this season for us," Steve Nash said. "That's a step in his maturation, and it's exciting for me to see him do it. He's improved a lot, and you have to give him great marks for that. It just takes time to get comfortable. He's a really good player and a talented kid. You've seen how good he can be when he gets confident. I'm excited for his future."
Serving as Head Coach Alvin Gentry's chief understudy to Nash, the youngster has also benefitted from minutes at the two spot, playing alongside the two-time NBA MVP at the off-guard position at times this year. He's no stranger to bouncing back and forth between playmaker and shooting guard. He did the same thing when he played for his national team years back.
"I'm used to the switching," Dragic said. "It's actually easier for me to remain in the game and just switch to the one. That gives me more time to warm up and then when Steve goes out of the game, then I'm already out there ready to go. I don't have trouble with that. I'm happy wherever coach wants to put me in a game."
As the Suns' daily practices wind down on the Annexus Practice Court, the 23-year-old can be found still hard at work on his shot with assistant coaches Dan Majerle and Igor Kokoskov, who see Dragic's occasional stints at the two position as a big benefit for the youngster.
"It's great for Goran," Majerle said, "because he's playing with Steve who makes everybody a better player. Plus that gives him a little more confidence when Steve comes out, and he moves to point guard. He has rhythm for the game. That helps when you play with a great player. When you're out there and all the pressure isn't all thrown on you right away to lead the team, you get to sit back and feed off what Steve does."
Impressed with his protégé's hard work and eagerness to get better, the Suns Ring of Honor great feels that Dragic's developing understanding of the game has led to his overall improvement and a spike in confidence.
"It's been a lot harder for him, especially coming from overseas and entering a new place, a new culture and a different style of game," Majerle said. "And factor in he's playing at point guard. When I came in as a rookie, all I had to do was guard people. He's got to think out there. He's running the team. He's got to put guys in the right positions and make the right play and the correct read. He's had it a lot tougher than I did.
"You can see it every game. He continues to make shots. He makes plays. He realizes what he can do out there, and his confidence grows. He knows he belongs. He's a tough kid. He doesn't back down from anybody, and it's fun to watch."
No stranger to coming off the bench himself, Jared Dudley has seen improvement from the second-unit's point guard.
"Goran's been more aggressive this year over last," Dudley said. "Confidence has something to do with that. Coach Gentry has given him a lot of leeway. He won't take him out after a turnover or a bad shot. Learning the NBA game, he's learned to be aggressive coming off pick and rolls when it comes to his jumpshot. Also, he attacks so much more on the transition. When he gets a rebound or the ball comes out to him, he looks to attack. And if nobody picks him up, he'll go coast to coast."
While absorbing the ins and outs of what many consider to be the most difficult position on the court in the most competitive league on the planet, Dragic has handled most of those changes in stride.
"It's a huge difference in confidence now," the point guard said. "I'm much more comfortable. I want to try and help my teammates and I just have to push the ball, create an advantage and find the open guys. And if I'm open, I'm going to shoot it. Last year, I would hesitate. I didn't know what to do. 'Do I shoot? Do I penetrate?' This year, I know what I'm going to do."