PHOENIX — On the irony scale, Thursday’s news conference at US Airways Center should check in as a 10. The star of the show was Goran Dragic, who was being reintroduced to a pack of reporters that wasn’t exactly thrilled to see him leave 17 months ago.
Back on Feb. 24, 2011, the Suns shipped The Dragon and a first-round pick — extracted from the Orlando Magic in the Marcin Gortat trade — to the Houston Rockets. Less than a year after Dragic had helped the Suns gun down the evil San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference playoffs, his status as the heir apparent to the great Steve Nash didn’t look quite as apparent to the franchise’s new personnel shakers.
So the Suns traded Dragic for Aaron Brooks, who wasn’t quite up to helping drag the Suns to a playoff berth in 2011. Brooks later dribbled off to China a few days before the lockout ended and the Suns helped Nash leave town for a job with the LA Lakers one day before bringing back Dragic — after the Rockets decided he was too pricey to keep.
On Thursday, Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby took responsibility for a mistake eventually made right when the team signed Dragic to a four-year, free-agent deal worth somewhere in the plush neighborhood of $30 million to $32 million per season.
“I would have told you it was a brilliant move,” Babby, tongue firmly planted in cheek, said of Dragic’s roundabout journey back to Arizona.
Well, it’s a lot better than allowing pride to become a factor in a point guard search that could have ended with signing a lesser player. But it also wouldn’t have been possible without residual affection from Dragic.
“He left here on the greatest of terms,” Babby said, “and he returns on the greatest of terms.”
And, just in case it wasn’t t quite understood how much the team and player cared for each other, the 26-year-old Slovenian asked if he could interrupt the proceedings to make a point.
“Can I say something?”
Suns coach Alvin Gentry, seated to Dragic’s left, leaned in with a reminder.
“It’s your press conference.”
Right, and the Suns figure to be his team. But don’t allow The Dragon’s polite off-the-court nature to suggest that he plans to defer on the basketball court. His time in Houston did quite a bit to prepare the quick lefty for the demanding role of Nash’s successor.
“That was the best thing that happened to me,” Dragic said of being shipped to Houston.
Actually, the best thing that happened to Dragic last season was a bacterial infection contracted by Rockets starting point guard Kyle Lowry. With Lowry out, Dragic was given 28 starts and — in coach Kevin McHale’s ball-screen-heavy offensive structure — responded by putting up crazy numbers. As Lowry’s caddy, Goran was giving McHale 7.1 points and 3.0 assists in 19.2 minutes per game. He was shooting a disappointing 42 percent from the field, including an icy 26 percent from 3-point range. As a starter, Dragic averaged 18 points and 8.4 dimes in 36 minutes per game, making 49 percent of his shots overall and 38 percent from deep.
Dragic explained that the only thing required to reach that level of on-court swagger and productivity was an opportunity.
“My confidence went way up,” he said. “I became more vocal on the court. In the past, I was shy on the court.”
Now, working in a town with franchise executives, coaches, teammates and fans who remain very fond of him, Dragic must master the art of taking over for Nash without trying to replace him.
“We’re not going to be comparing Goran to Steve Nash,” Babby said. “Nobody can duplicate what Steve did. Goran will find his own way.”
Just like he found his way back to Phoenix.
“I don’t want to be like Steve Nash,” Dragic said, referring to a style of play that seems pretty original by NBA standards. “I’m not scared. I want to improve my game and lead the team.”
It also doesn’t hurt his comfort level to be back playing in Gentry’s system.
“That was why it was not a hard decision to come back to Phoenix,” Dragic said. “Phoenix is my home. We have a really bright future. We’re going to be really good.”
Another part of that future is Kendall Marshall, a rookie point guard the Suns selected with the 13th pick in last month’s draft. Rejoining a franchise that just drafted another playmaker wasn’t an issue for Dragic. In fact, Gentry said The Dragon wanted to offer Marshall some advice after the former North Carolina standout struggled during his Summer League debut this week in Las Vegas.
Dragic remembers the first pro game for another Suns point guard who joined the team in 2008.
“I was terrible,” he said. “I went back to my room in the hotel and cried all night.”
Now he’s a savvy veteran armed with a robust contract and his own words of wisdom.
“And now, I can give advice to Marshall,” Dragic said before revealing Nash offered similar advice in ’08. “He said, ‘Kid, just wait for your opportunity … you may have one or two opportunities, and you have to take advantage of that.”
That’s what Dragic did in Houston. And — with Nash in Hollywood — that’s why The Dragon is here.