PHOENIX — After accepting the 2013-14 NBA Most Improved Player Award on Wednesday afternoon, Suns point guard Goran Dragic recalled a pair of particularly unflattering assessments made in the media early in his career.
"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."
Whether those brutal critiques were a chief motivator or not, Dragic has made a couple pundits look bad, and it was clear Wednesday that Dragic and the Suns believe his Most Improved Player Award is just the beginning.
"I can say only one thing: I’m going to try to get better every year and try to be the Goran Dragic that everybody knows," Dragic said, closing his opening remarks on stage in the lobby of US Airways Center.
It was the same lobby where nearly two years ago a tunnel of Suns employees welcomed him back to the organization after a season-plus in Houston. The setting and the occasion gave Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby the platform to sheepishly take equal parts credit and blame.
"I’ll mention that I had the foresight to bring him back as a free agent," Babby said. "We won’t discuss why it was necessary to bring him back as a free agent. … We couldn’t be more delighted that he’s a Phoenix Sun."
Babby’s effort to right the ship by signing Dragic to a four-year deal in the summer of 2012 is looking even better now than it did then. After averaging a career best 14.7 points per game during the 2012-2013 season, Dragic took another big leap this season, setting a new mark with 20.3 points per game and a career best 50.5 field goal percentage while leading the Suns to a 48-34 record — a 23-win improvement. He also made 40.8 percent of his 3-point shots, making him the only player in the NBA to top 50 and 40 percent in both field-goal categories.
Dragic received 408 of a possible 1,134 points, including 65 of 126 first-place votes, in balloting of writers and broadcasters to easily outpace Indiana guard Lance Stephenson (158 points, 13 first-place votes). The top two were followed by New Orleans‘ Anthony Davis (16 first-place votes, 155 points) and Phoenix teammate Gerald Green (16 first-place votes, 117 points). Suns forward Markieff Morris was 10th in the vote.
First-year Suns coach Jeff Hornacek and general manager Ryan McDonough got an early look at the improved Dragic when watching him play for the Slovenian national team at the European Championship last summer.
"We could tell from watching him be in charge of that team that he’d taken the next step," Hornacek said. "That’s the sign of a great player — when they can take their game to the next level.
"We use him as the example for all our players, and I think all our players follow him. We know (he’ll) get even better."
Still just 27 years old, Dragic sees ample room for improvement. As big as last summer was for him as he transformed himself on an international stage, he sees this summer as even more significant.
Without a national team commitment this summer, Dragic will have time to work on his shooting, impressive as it already was last season. He also hopes to improve his free-throw shooting (76.0 percent) and ability to drive right.
"Overall, just try to be a more complete player," Dragic said. "This summer is going to be very important for me trying to get better. I know it’s going to be hard, but I’m optimistic.
"It’s a question of how much work you put in and how much you sacrifice."
Were it not for Dragic’s ability to endure criticism and the early struggle adjusting to the NBA, he might not found himself on stage accepting an award Wednesday. He might never have even found himself back in Phoenix.
"I always knew I could play at this level, but sometimes you have to have luck, no injuries and of course the right situation," Dragic said. "The Phoenix Suns gave me that. I’m always going to be grateful for that, and I’m excited to work hard to try to improve."
Before Dragic accepted his award Wednesday, Suns managing partner Robert Sarver took to the podium and shared how he first learned of Dragic. It was the night of the 2008 NBA Draft and then-vice president of basketball operations David Griffin, now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, came to him with a request.
"David Griffin goes ‘I need $500,000,’ " Sarver recalled. "I go ‘When?’ and he goes ’10 minutes.’ I said ‘Well, what’s that for?’ and he says ‘We’ve got to buy this draft pick, we’ve got to get this guy from Europe.’ "
Sarver needed only watch a couple quick highlights before agreeing to dole out the extra cash to land Dragic. And while the organization may have erred in trading him once, its initial assessment was right, and the Suns’ future appears brighter with Dragic in it.
"The 2013-14 season was one of considerable progress for the Phoenix Suns," Babby said. "The catalyst for that progress was undoubtedly Goran."