Three years ago, the Suns made a midseason move by trading backup point guard and role-player Goran Dragic to the Houston Rockets. Now that Dragic is in his second season of his second stint with the Suns, fans should be counting their blessings that the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week left the team on good terms.
"My first thoughts were, as soon as I hit the free agency market and the Suns called me, I said, ‘Why not?'" Dragic said, referring to the four-year, $34 million contract he signed with the Suns before the 2012-13 season began. "I had a great three and a half years here. The organization, the city, the fans are great. If I didn't like it, I would not have come back."
Now in his sixth NBA season, Dragic has led the Suns in points (20.0) and assists (6.1) per game for most of 2013-14 – and he has stepped up in the absence of fellow starting guard Eric Bledsoe, who has missed the team's last 17 games with a knee injury that may keep him sidelined for the rest of the season. Last week, Dragic earned Player of the Week honors by averaging 26.8 points and 6.0 assists per game while leading the Suns to a perfect 4-0 record.
The 27-year-old native of Slovenia said the feel in Phoenix is different this time around, but he's enjoying his experience as much as he did in his first stint when he helped the Suns advance to the 2009-10 Western Conference Finals.
"I would say it's a different time now because at that point in my career, I was the rookie," he said. "It was something new to come to the NBA for me, and I had to adjust to the new basketball, to the city, the new culture. But the second time, I'm already there, and it's much easier."
It's fair to say that Dragic has successfully adjusted to the American brand of basketball. ESPN's Marc Stein notes that Dragic was just one of four players to average at least 22 points, six assists and four rebounds per game in January – and of those four, he was the only one to not receive an invitation to this year's NBA All-Star Game.
Dragic, whose 50.5% field goal percentage for the season is easily the best of his career, said getting to play under one of the NBA's best all-time point guards from 2008-11 certainly didn't hurt his development.
"Of course, playing under Steve Nash and watching him – I think I stole some moves from him, especially going into the paint and doing that circle," he joked, referring to Nash's trademark short fade-away jump shot.
"I think (I've improved) a lot, especially shooting. Back when I was in Europe, I was more of a driver. I didn't shoot a lot of jump shots from the outside."
And speaking of former teammates, Dragic has had the chance to reunite with guard and good friend Leandro Barbosa, who he played next to in Phoenix from 2008-10. The Suns re-signed Barbosa in January to help replace Bledsoe's production.
"LB's my guy," Dragic said. "He taught me a lot when I came to the league. He's such a great person, such a great guy, and it's really nice to have him back on the team."
Dragic also reveres first-year Phoenix head coach and former Suns guard Jeff Hornacek, who has led the team to a 29-18 record in what most believed would be a losing season.
"He's always positive. Even when you have a bad night and you're not shooting the ball great, he's still going to be positive and say, ‘Hey, if you're open, shoot it. I don't care if you miss hundreds of them,'" he said.
"He gives you that confidence that the players need, especially with this young team, and he just lets you play. That's a magical touch from him. He knows because he was a great basketball player and probably a Hall of Famer. He knows what he's doing and he's putting his experience on us, the players."
Hornacek has said he's not surprised at the success of this year's team – but before the season began, did Dragic really believe the Suns would be playoff contenders?
"I mean, at the beginning of the season, no," he said. "Everybody was talking that we're in rebuilding mode. We changed a lot of faces from last year to this year, so I didn't know a lot of guys.
"But in training camp, a few days in when you see what group of guys we are and how we want to work hard, I was (not surprised). Of course, the playoffs were still a longshot for us at the beginning of the season, but now I think we're a playoff team, definitely."