Q&A: Goran Dragic on Being Fearless, Playing His Game, and ‘Words With Friends’

Goran Dragic is reaching the end of his best-ever season — a top-20 Player Efficiency Rating, career-high shooting numbers, more free throws than ever, and outstanding play as both a solo point guard and a hybrid alongside Eric Bledsoe. Dragic said last week he is more banged up than ever before, and the Suns appear likely to be the odd team out in the ultracompetitive Western Conference.

They’re two games behind Memphis and Dallas in the loss column, with nine of their final 15 games on the road. They don’t own a single relevant tiebreaker, though they can still win the head-to-head season series against Dallas. But even if Phoenix finishes out of the playoffs, it will go down as one of the great stories of this NBA season — a fast-paced scoring machine, bombing 3-pointers and outrunning every reasonable internal and external expectation.

Dragic reflected on it all during a one-on-one with Grantland in Brooklyn on Monday.

I’m going to start with a statement instead of a question.

Interesting. Go ahead.

You have been my favorite player to watch in the league this season.

Thank you. I appreciate it. It’s one of the best seasons of my career. It’s not only me. It’s about the whole team. I would like to thank all the players for supporting me, and the coaching staff. Right now, in my life, everything is in the right place — my personal life, and with basketball.

You got married in the last year or so, right?

Yeah, I got married, and I have a kid now. So far, everything is in order.

I can’t be the only person to have said something like that to you. Have other players, after games or whatever, approached you and said some version of, “Hey, man, you’re playing fantastically”?

A lot of players, especially my friends. The one statement I really remember was from Kevin Durant during the All-Star break in New Orleans. He said to me that I should have been in that game. That was one of those things I am always going to remember. He is one of the best two players in the league, so it’s nice to hear that from him.

It’s hard to believe now, but people say early in your career, coaches had to tell you to be more aggressive going to the rim. Is that true?

Yeah, it is. Especially in my first season [2008-09] — I didn’t play the first 40 games. [Editor’s note: Dragic actually played 55 games that season.] It was a different culture, and different basketball. I needed some time to adjust. But at that moment, when your confidence is not up, you don’t want to make a lot of mistakes. You just want to pass the ball and be solid.

I was not aggressive enough, and Alvin Gentry, the coach — he always told me, “Kid, it doesn’t matter how many mistakes you’re going to make. Just go. Just play. Be yourself.” And I figured out those things. I was always good at penetrating in Europe, but in Europe, you don’t have so many shot-blockers as there are in the NBA, so it was easier.

I was never scared to go the hoop. And I figured it out here. Then I had to develop my jump shot, because it was too tough — my body was so banged up.

So you weren’t really scared at first?

No. But all NBA teams prepare on you. They go under the screens, and you have to change your game to be more successful.

Speaking of shot-blockers: I told you this at All-Star, but I don’t think any player has gone at Roy Hibbert — all the way to the rim — as fearlessly as you did in your two games against Indiana. You just drove right at him, with little shoulder blocks, hesitation dribbles, and just high-speed drives. Even LeBron has a floater just for Hibbert. Did you prepare specifically for him?

No, that’s just how I am. Of course, in some games, you feel better about penetrating. You feel quick. In that game, I know Roy Hibbert is going to stay back and try to zone it.

And most guys, when they see Roy waiting there, they stop and pull up for that little floater Indiana wants you to take.

And sometimes you have to stop. But at some of those times, Paul George was guarding me, and he’s pretty long.

DRAGIC1

Like, he can challenge that jumper from behind if you stop and pop, so you’re better off driving all the way?

Yeah. And those [jumpers] are really tough shots for me. So the only thing I can do was just try to penetrate and catch Roy Hibbert going backward — and hit him with my body.

You tricked him with a lot of those little timing moves. Do you just pick those things up as you go along in the NBA? Is it natural?

Yeah, of course you pick it up. I learned a lot from Steve [Nash]. I don’t have the same game as Steve, but I learned a couple of things from him — how to play pick-and-roll, and do that midget around the paint.

The midget? Do you mean the little Nash thing where he drives down one side, goes under the rim, and pops out the other side? You call that the midget?

We call it the midget. But I work on my game in the offseason. I watch tape of players — Chris Paul, Deron Williams, all the top players who play my same position.

Did you model your step-back jumper after anyone? Because it’s not just a step-back. It’s also like a severe lean back — like you’re leaning out a window, looking up at someone a floor above you.

That’s just me. It’s just natural to me. Especially if I penetrate to my right, this [left] leg is very strong, I can push backward. It’s a tough shot, but I practice it a lot. It’s my go-to move.

That’s the fallback option?

Yeah. Especially when they switch big guys on to me, you take those hard two dribbles, get them going backward.

One of the coolest moments, I think, in the last few years, was when you went crazy against the Spurs in Game 3 of the 2010 conference semifinals — when you scored a million points in the fourth quarter, and Gentry didn’t even have to put Nash back in the game. Do you have any mementos from the game?

I have the jersey.

The same one you wore?

Yeah. It’s back in Europe, in my house, hanging on the wall. But I wish I had the ball or something!

That was a fun team, or it seemed like one from far away. Was it as fun as it looked?

We had such great chemistry, probably the same as now. And we had a lot of superstars. The most important thing for me is that we had the best bench in the league.

And it was a five-man bench, like a hockey bench, right?

Yeah, all five of us. It was really special.

After all the point guard battles you’ve had, when the Suns traded for Eric Bledsoe, did you say to yourself, “Oh, man. Again?” Be honest.

I’m always honest. When I found out, I was like, “Oh my god! What is going on right now?” I was never afraid of competition, but, of course, you start thinking: “What are they going to do now? Are they going to move me?” But I called my agent, and he said not to worry. And the GM and the coach — they called me the next day. Coach Jeff [Hornacek] explained to me that he wanted us to play together, and be like the old Suns with two point guards like Jeff and KJ (Kevin Johnson).

When I found that out, I was kind of surprised. But at the same time, I couldn’t wait to share. We had some trouble at first, trying to figure out those things. But me and Eric — we are really good friends. We talk a lot. And you can see that in how we play.

It must be more relaxing in a way. I mean, the way you guys play, always pushing the pace, it must be nice to have someone else who can handle the ball now and then, right?

That’s the way we want to play. That’s the way coach wants us to play. It helps my game, too, because sometimes I was the only guy who was creating off the dribble, and it was tough to play 35 minutes like that — it’s hard to sustain that level. And with Eric, I can get to the corner, stand there, and I can get open 3s.

Are you a real lefty, like in everything in life?

I am.

You never know with some lefties. Mike Conley told me he’s a righty in basically everything but basketball.

I’m a pure lefty. Everything. I eat with my right hand, but when I was a kid, I was eating with my left. My mom was getting on me that that’s not nice, so I switched my hands.

Gerald Green takes some crazy shots. I see the reactions you guys have sometimes in games — like, “Come on, man, really?” Do you just accept that’s part of his game — taking and making tough shots?

[Laughs.] You know, we need Gerald. He’s a great teammate. He’s that kind of player, who can make some unbelievably tough shots. If he’s rolling, of course we want to feed him. It doesn’t even matter what shot he takes. It’s kind of easy for him, because he elevates so high. I would not say it’s a good shot, but it’s kind of a decent shot for him.

Of course, sometimes we need to be much smarter in the offense, especially when the game is on the line. We have to get a good shot, an open shot. But Gerald has demonstrated he can hit some big shots. He’s hit game-winning shots. He’s a huge factor on this team.

How much easier is your life when you can run a pick-and-roll with Channing Frye — a screener who can kill teams with outside shots?

Oh, man, a lot easier. It’s a huge difference from this year to last year, when Channing was out. Everybody was so much inside the paint, that you could not create. You could not get to the inside. And right now, it’s so much easier. They’re so afraid he’s going to knock down shots.

Defenders just have to stick to him, instead of helping against you as you go around the pick.

They have to be close to him. And that’s one man less in the paint. It’s so much easier.

There’s one kind of drive you get — when your defender gets between you and Channing’s pick, like he wants to send you away from the pick, but Channing’s defender is sticking right to Channing. You can just drive into open space away from the pick, right?

DRAGIC2

Exactly. My guy is already on the side of me, and it’s just much easier to penetrate. And if they help, of course, I’m going to find Channing.

I hear you play Words With Friends to learn English?

If I’m honest, this year, I don’t know when the last time I played was. But last year, I played with Luis Scola.

Who won?

A couple of times, I won, and he won a couple of times. I also play against my trainer, Aaron Nelson, and our equipment guy, Jay Gaspar. And they are Americans. I can proudly say I beat them.

So you got better and better.

I got better. Sometimes I get away with some words that I don’t even understand what they mean. They are not even English, I don’t think.

Hey, if the game lets you play them, they count.

It lets me!

The playoff race is obviously heated in the West. Do you check the standings every day? Do you look at the Eastern Conference standings and feel bitter you’re in the wrong conference?

I’m happy that we are in the West.

Really?

Yeah! Why not? If you want to be a good team, you have to play against the best teams. For me, personally, I want to have tough challenges. The West is a little bit stronger, and nobody expected we would even be contenders for the playoffs.

When did you realize this team could be good? In the preseason?

Oh, no. No, no, no, no. I mean, I’m always positive. I always think better days are going to come. We are 7-7 after our first 14 games, but after that, we went eight or nine straight games. After that, you get your confidence. You feel it. The team spirit was up. That was the time.

Filed Under: NBA, Goran Dragic

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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