How Zoran Dragic Became a Phoenix Sun

NBAE/Getty Images
by Matt Petersen

When Ryan McDonough and Jeff Hornacek’s plane touched down in Slovenia in the summer of 2013, their itinerary revolved around one Dragic brother.

Visiting observers to EuroBasket2013, the recently hired general manager and head coach of the Phoenix Suns were eager to see their returning point guard in action. How much had Dragic’s game progressed? Would he be able to take on an increased role on an old team headed in a new direction under new management?

Sure enough, they saw the jersey with “Dragic” on the back doing most of the damage for the host nation. It was happening twice as often as it should, in fact.

Several games confirmed what their McDonough and Hornacek’s eyes initially saw: Slovenia had another Dragic worth keeping an eye on.

“Coach and I were really impressed with Zoran’s toughness, with his intensity,” McDonough said. “He gets a lot of deflections. It seems like he came up with every loose ball. He’s just scrappy, hard-nosed player and that’s what we liked about him.”

The setting mattered just as much as the production. The Dragic brothers were getting superstar treatment from a home country of 2 million people. When big events happen in small towns (or nations), the host wants its native participant to do well.

“There’s a lot of pressure in those games,” McDonough said. “I think it was the biggest sporting event that the country of Slovenia has ever hosted. To be able to go there and see how well Zoran played, along with Goran, at that level, those two guys really carried their team to some great things.”

Indeed, the Dragic brothers were the top two scorers for a Slovenia team that upset top-ranked Spain in group play before finishing fifth overall. The run also cemented their country a spot in the 2014 FIBA World Cup (previously known as the World Championships).

In the year between the tournaments, the siblings went their separate ways. Goran returned to Phoenix and guided the Suns to a turnaround season. Meanwhile Zoran doubled his production with Unicaja Malaga of the ACB Spanish League, one of the elite Euroleague conferences where NBA standouts like Goran, Ricky Rubio, Luis Scola, Marc Gasol and others put the finishing touches on their European resumes.

While aware of Zoran’s play in Spain, the Suns didn’t see how drastic his improvement was until this summer’s FIBA World Cup. The hustle and defense, if anything, were more present than before. On top of that, the 25-year-old guard sported a vastly upgraded jump shot, which connected on 55.3 percent of its attempts inside the three-point arc and a sparkling 43.3 percent beyond it.

“Guys mature and develop at different rates,” McDonough said. “Zoran is a bit of a late-bloomer, but I’ve seen rapid improvement lately. He was better when I saw him last year in Slovenia than what I’d ever seen before. He took another step and was even better this year in Spain than what I’d seen before.”

Good enough, in fact, to discuss a new job opportunity.

“I was fortunate enough to watch them play a couple times in Barcelona,” McDonough said. “Zoran, in the games we watched on TV and the few games I saw in person, played very well. His defense and toughness and energy stood out.”

“That’s when it became more real, I think.”

Goran first heard the rumors of his brother’s potential NBA arrival in late August. Slovenia had just lost to Team USA by 30 points, but 16 points from Zoran had reportedly activated several teams’ interest in his services.

Neither of the Dragics, however, were ready to believe trending media hearsay. They weren’t about to get their hopes up until something direct and tangible happened.

Then, during Slovenia’s group play run in Barcelona, Goran’s phone rang.

“When we came to Barcelona, Ryan called me,” Goran said. “He asked if he can meet and he would like to meet my brother and talk to him for a little bit.”

Again, neither brother wanted to assume this meant their long-time goal – playing in the NBA together – was about to happen.

“Even then at that meeting I didn’t know,” Goran said. “Maybe he was just polite to greet my brother.”

“I think one of the challenges for us last year, especially when Eric was out of the lineup, was our perimeter defense, finding somebody you can put on another team’s best guard...I think Zoran provides us some of that.”

— Ryan McDonough

McDonough was polite. He was also forthcoming about the real reason behind the arranged dinner.

“I asked Zoran what he had in mind, how he’d adjust to all the changes like moving to a new country…adjusting to a new league, new teammates and all that,” McDonough said.

Suddenly, a childhood dream was becoming all too real.

“I was like, ‘whoa, this is going somewhere!’” Dragic exclaimed. “From that point, I knew there was some chance he was going to come.”

The thought of being teammates in Phoenix was like a shot of adrenaline. The brothers were also roomates during Slovenia’s stay in Spain, and the nights following their meeting with McDonough were filled with late-night what-if’s and it-would-be-awesome’s.

“You’re laying in your bed and you start asking all those questions,” Dragic laughed. “‘What if you come to Phoenix? That would be good!’ ‘Of course, you’re my bro!’

McDonough had seen that excitement in their dinner meeting. Much like his brother, Zoran doesn’t bother trying to hide his feelings for the sake of professionalism. As McDonough asked him about the various adjustments to NBA life, the younger Dragic answered each query with a combination of determination and enthusiasm.

“Once we saw the passion and the fire in Zoran’s eyes and how much it would mean to him to make it to the NBA and play with his brother, the talks intensified and we were able to reach an agreement over the last few days,” McDonough said.

The Suns are getting another Dragic, but the newer one is not a duplicate. The differences, in fact, are a big part of why he is here.

“Goran has played more with the ball in his hands, more in a traditional point guard role not only for us but also for Slovenia,” McDonough said. “Zoran is a little bit bigger. He’s a little bit thicker. He’s more of a shooting guard. He’s tough, just the intangible things that you look for in a player that help you win games. He’s the first guy to the floor for loose balls. He sets hard screens. He battles through screens, defensively. “

The defensive end, in fact, is where Phoenix expects Zoran to make the biggest impact. Goran compares his brother’s intensity on defense to that of P.J. Tucker, and added that he will likely make intrasquad scrimmages an even more competitive affair.

Zoran’s aggression and timing on that side of the floor is a treasured commodity, one the Suns missed when Eric Bledsoe was out due to injury for portions of last season.

“It’s fun for me. I’m really happy and I’ll try to help [Zoran] as much as I can to adjust. The rest is on him.”

— Goran Dragic

 “We feel like we have a lot of offensive firepower,” McDonough said. “I think one of the challenges for us last year, especially when Eric was out of the lineup, was our perimeter defense, finding somebody you can put on another team’s best guard, point guard or shooting guard. That guy will battle and be able to neutralize another team’s best offensive player. We lost a little bit of that when Eric went out. I think Zoran provides us some of that.”

The transition process will still occur. Goran was the first to remind Zoran of his own NBA growing pains.

“I told him if you’re going to come here, you’ll need to work hard but at the same time you need to be patient,” Goran said. “First year is always tough. It’s a different league and you need to adjust. He understands that.”

There is also the team-specific challenge of the aforementioned depth. Much like last year, nothing will be guaranteed by Hornacek and his coaching staff. Those who play hard and well will play most.

“Our backcourt is crowded, there’s no denying that, but that will make for some good positional battles,” McDonough said. “The good thing about having that many guys is there’s a lot of depth. There’s a lot of talent. We hope that allows us to overcome injuries or foul troubles or whatever may come up along the way that isn’t ideal.”

At this point, however, donning an NBA jersey alongside his brother already constitutes “ideal” for Goran. Aside from simply being in the league, the duo has long shared the goal of being the first Slovenian brothers in the NBA.

“It’s fun for me,” he said with a smile. “I’m really happy and I’ll try to help him as much as I can to adjust. The rest is on him.”