Suns Sign Goran Dragic

By Stefan Swiat, Suns.com
Posted: Sept. 22, 2008

The Suns have officially completed their quest for a backup point guard, finally signing second-round draft pick Goran Dragic to a three-year contract, after his buyout was completed Monday.

Phoenix, which has been seeking a true backup playmaker for 34-year old Steve Nash for his entire tenure with the Suns, landed what it hopes to be the successor to the two-time MVP.

Dragic, a 22-year-old southpaw from Slovenia, averaged 11.3 points, 3.4 assists and 1.5 steals a game for Union Olimpija Ljubljana of the Adriatic League. His Slovenian team, which was one of the 25 teams good enough to qualify for the Euroleague, posted a 5-9 record against Europe’s best clubs.

“He’s a very good prospect and we felt that he was the No. 2 point guard in this past season’s draft after (Chicago’s) Derrick Rose,” Suns President of Basketball Operations and GM Steve Kerr said. “So to get him in the second round was a coup for us.”

In fact, the Suns' front office personnel doubted that they would be able to bring over Dragic this season. It took a lot of work behind the scenes by his agent, Rade Filipovich, to negotiate the young guard out his European contract. Although Dragic played for Union Olimpija last season, he was on loan from Tau Ceramica in Spain, who owned his rights.

Before Phoenix could see Dragic donning the purple and orange, a couple of legal matters had to be resolved. The first problem was that Dragic’s contract didn’t allow a buyout to take place until next season, so Filipovich worked feverishly to convince Tau to allow Dragic’s contract to be bought out this season. Secondly, Tau had to settle a previous dispute over his rights with his previous professional team, Geoplin Slovan in Slovenia. After that was resolved and Tau knew that they could find a replacement for Dragic, Tau was able to agree to a buyout offer.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Dragic would be under a guaranteed contract for three years and then the team would hold the option for the fourth season.

The addition of Dragic allows the Suns to restrict Nash’s minutes and could possibly even allow the All-Star to sit out a few games so his understudy can get some starts. Grant Hill won’t have to worry about any ballhandling duties and Leandro Barbosa can just focus on providing a scoring spark off the bench.

“If we would have signed a veteran backup point guard to Steve, it would sort have mitigated the positives of the kind of lineup that we have,” Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin said. “Leandro has played a lot as a backup and has been good at it, Grant Hill can make decisions for us, Boris Diaw makes decisions for us so we felt that our team was built in such a way that we’d be better off developing a young kid to play a few minutes instead of giving those limited minutes to a veteran.

“It didn’t make sense for the veteran, and it didn’t make sense for our team long-term. It’s better for us to give Goran whatever minutes we can give him now because it’s not absolutely critical that he’s ready as a full-time backup point guard because we have some people to absorb some of that now; so we were thinking more big picture.”

Dragic first burst onto the Suns’ radar when Filipovich was representing former Sun Zarko Cabarkapa. Filipovich tipped Phoenix off, saying he knew of a Slovenia kid that “could be special as a point guard.” He also lauded his great size and defensive ability, which he saw as rare qualities in a young playmaker.

After hearing that, Griffin and former Assistant General Manager Vinny Del Negro scouted him while he was playing for Slovan. Then, they followed up by watching him in Spain, and then more recently for the Slovenian National Team last summer.

With the Slovenian National Team, Dragic performed well against Tony Parker and France in the 2007 European Championships. Not only did he ferociously defend Parker and attack the rim with reckless abandon, but he did it all with a broken nose.

Griffin believed that after the European Championships, he was able to distance himself a great deal from the rest of the players in his draft class. Director of Player Personnel Todd Quinter continued to keep tabs on the Slovenian all season before watching him dominate the Reebok Eurocamp in Treviso, Italy in June. After his performance there, the Suns made him a top priority in this year’s draft. In fact, if Robin Lopez had not been available at No. 15, Phoenix might have chosen Dragic with that pick.

“He’s very athletic, he has a great feel for the game," Kerr said. “He has a point-guard mentality with his way to distribute the ball, but he’s got some game too. He’s very creative, gets to the rim and dunks the ball.”

Now Dragic has until the end of the 2009-10 season - when Nash will be heading into the option year of his contract - to play the role of understudy to the Second Team All-NBA performer. The Suns front office is even hoping to be able to sit Nash out of a few games this season so he can be rested for the playoffs.

However, Griffin would prefer Suns fans didn't get ahead of themselves, “What I think everyone needs to understand is that he’s a rookie point guard - rather a foreign rookie point guard - which takes longer typically for a player to develop.”

But in the meantime, Phoenix hopes it has another player in the rotation that fits into its system. Due to his 6-7 wingspan and quickness, Griffin believes that his versatility will greatly improve his chances of earning playing time. With Nash being a constant on the floor, the ability to play alongside of Nash and defend shooting guards can only help Dragic log more minutes than he would see as merely a backup at point.

But ultimately, being a reserve and then taking over as the starter someday would be the best-case scenario for Dragic and Phoenix.

“Now he has to come and has to compete for a backup spot behind Steve,” Kerr said. “Hopefully he’ll learn and develop behind Steve and potentially be our starter someday. We’ll see if that happens.”

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