Dragic: Proving People Wrong 'Was My Pleasure'

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Goran Dragic is a cheerful guy. He’s a star without the ego, complete with a half-glass-full attitude while never getting irritated by long interview sessions or surprise autograph requests.

He’s even good-natured about holding grudges.

But he does hold them.

“People back home, when I went to the NBA, said ‘he’s going to come back home soon. He’s not good enough,’” he said with a smile. “This season that we’re only going to win 16 games, that we’re going to tank it and try to get better picks.”

More than the increased attention, the good publicity, the heightened respect and career-high numbers, the nay-sayers were what made the 2013-14 season memorable for the vengeful Slovenian.

“I still remember one quote from a newspaper, somebody said that I’m the worst player in the NBA and my last name should not be Dragic, but ‘Tragic’,” Dragic said. “That sticks in your head. It sticks in my head. Every time when I was on a practice court, I always had this in my mind.”

“That was my pleasure, proving people wrong,” he said with a smile.

The Suns fed off of Dragic’s look-at-me-now approach, ran with it, molded their identity around it.

His teammates were the witnesses, watching him score career-highs through stitches, sprained ankles and defensive game plans geared around stopping him.

“Goran, I had never watched him play ‘cause I was over on the East coast, so you’d only catch bits and pieces,” Ish Smith said. “That’s one tough dude, man. He plays through injuries. He does it all.”

“Goran, he’s an unbelievable competitor,” added Eric Bledsoe “He goes into every game wanting to win.”

The newly minted Most Improved Player award winner is also a candidate for one of the three All-NBA teams revealed later in the playoffs. A berth on the first, second or third team (15 total spots) would be an ironic honor, given that Dragic was not recognized as one of the 24 best players in the league at All-Star weekend.

He felt he could one day at least be in the conversation for those accolades. With that day here, NBA onlookers are recognizing what perhaps only Dragic envisioned long before.

“I always had this in my head that I could play in this league, that I’m good enough…but of course you have to prove that on the floor,” he said.

So he did. He developed a mid-range jump shot. He attacked the rim, even when it was guarded by the likes of Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah. He became one of the most lethal pick-and-roll ball-handlers in the league.

By the end of the season, he’d become just the fourth player in over two decades to average at least 20 points per game while shooting at least 50 percent overall and 40 percent from three.

The other three: Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

For the record, we found at least one other person who saw this coming: long-time teammate and friend Leandro Barbosa.

It isn’t hard for the Brazilian guard to remember the NBA origins of his former fellow bench player. Back then (2008-09), Dragic was timid, afraid of committing mistakes, constantly looking at the bench for confirmation that he was not about to be subbed out.

Yet the flashes he showed that year and especially in 2009-10 – combined with his teammates of that era – had Barbosa predicting big things.

“I knew he was going to be that kind of guy,” Barbosa said. “I think he had so many good players around him at the beginning of his career. I’m sure he learned. He proved that. He had his opportunity and he took it. I wouldn’t be surprised for him to be next year the All-Star player for the Phoenix Suns.”

It’s a goal Dragic would love to achieve, but one he knows is not given as a nod toward a previous season. After earning a place on the NBA’s radar this year, he needs to prove it was more than a one-season blip. “My goal is not to have only one season like that,” he said. “Of course, you need to have several seasons like that to be an elite point guard. I’m still not there.”

The only question is what “getting there” entails after a season like this one. With the 20-50-40 achievement already under his belt, what is reasonable to expect beyond that?

That could contain any number of answers. If Suns fans are lucky, at least a couple of them will motivate Dragic again.

“It’s going to be tough to beat this season, personally, but why not?” Dragic said. “I love challenges.”

No kidding.