Goran Dragic‘s nickname is “The Dragon,” but over the past few months, you wouldn’t know it based on how many times he’s been referred to as “the lone bright spot of the Suns’ season.” Dragic hasn’t really garnered any national attention as a superstar, but he’s easily identifiable as a key component in Phoenix’s ongoing rebuilding process and the flashes of brilliance he showed throughout the year prevented many a Suns fan from crossing over from the realm of the semi-depressed into reading-books-that-may-or-may-not-be-titled-”Don’t jump!” territory. With one of the best-kept secrets in the NBA somewhat rotting away down in the Valley of the Sun, Dragic’s is certainly one of those underrated players that anyone familiar with Suns basketball can appreciate. But does that make him the best value in the NBA?
To put it simply, not really. Phoenix signed Dragic to a four-year, $30 million deal last summer and his salary for this season ($7.5 million) made him the highest-paid player on the Suns. But that’s not to say he doesn’t have value. The Dragon led the Suns in scoring, assists and steals this year, putting up career bests of 14.7 points, 7.4 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. He didn’t exactly replace the beloved hero before him, but anyone who doubts what Dragic can do should keep in mind that even future Hall of Famer Steve Nash didn’t show significant improvement until his fifth year in the league, averaging 15.6 points, 7.3 assists, 3.2 rebounds and one steal per game. If those numbers look remarkably similar, it’s because they are. And guess how many years Dragic has been in the league? Five.
Possibly the best part of watching Dragic play is seeing him do something cool and knowing that this guy has plenty of potential as he continues to grow accustomed to a starting role. He still has some learning to do if he ever wants to be a pick-and-roll master like Nash, but he’s definitely picked up a thing or two from his old mentor in screen situations. Watch here as he doesn’t panic when the defense collapses, perfectly manipulating the defense with temporary indecision until Marcin Gortat is freed up just enough for him to throw him a nice little alley-oop.
A lot of people believe that basketball should adopt the second-assist rule, such as they have in hockey, because sometimes the ball movement is just too good for the credit of the assist to go to just one person. Goran Dragic would probably average somewhere around 15 assists per game if the hockey assist ever became a basketball reality, because it’s his smart ball rotation that often leads to wide-open looks for his teammates on the perimeter. I can’t count how many times Dragic has skipped the ball across the court to an open perimeter player for him to zip it into the corner when the defense rotates for a wide open 3. But since hockey assists aren’t that easy to find evidence of on the Internet at this time, take a look at the night the Suns dropped 17 3s on the Charlotte Bobcats and how many of them came out of Goran Dragic (made or assisted on).
Dragic’s defense is a little suspect at times because he is usually overpowered by bigger or quicker guards. But that’s not to say he isn’t clever on the defensive end and he certainly gets his fair share of weak-side steals. And in his defense, despite being so undersized, Dragic showed a lot of improvement on the defensive end, which makes him about one of three players in the Suns organization who can say the same. But the most marketable and entertaining part of the Dragon’s game is when he gets out on the fast break and attacks the basket. Despite being smaller and lighter, I can say with confidence that Dragic is one of the best finishers at the basket in the entire league. If you want some examples, see what he did to Los Angeles back in 2010 in the Western Conference Finals or this nifty little finish here. But my favorite example is from this past year, when Dragic elicited a reaction from the zombie crowd at Staples Center.
To go back to the original question, it’s hard to call Dragic the absolute best value in the NBA. If you want incredible value, look at guys like Corey Brewer in Denver ($3.2 million this year), Greg Monroe in Detroit ($3.2 million), J.R. Smith in New York ($2.8 million) or even Chris Andersen with the energy he brings to Miami ($342K). If you want to take it even further, consider how underpaid LeBron James is for what he does compared to the greats in other sports. But as someone who has interviewed Goran Dragic before, I can tell you that his humble disposition and foreign accent mask a star player waiting to evolve. He may get pushed around on defense sometimes and his 3-point shooting needs some work (32 percent), but any Suns fan who has watched this failing team flounder throughout the past few years will tell you: Goran Dragic is the foundation of Phoenix’s rebuilding process.