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Goran Dragic's Emergence Teaches Us Lessons About Player Development In The NBA

Goran Dragic's recent emergence for the Houston Rockets should teach us a lesson on how young players develop in the NBA.


You clearly saw this coming. You clearly knew that a point guard whose growth was stunted playing for Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns would emerge as one of the league's finest young point guards in a new setting.

You clearly saw Goran Dragic coming.

If so, you're a much smarter person than most. Even if you knew that player that subdued the Spurs with one of the greatest fourth-quarter NBA Playoff performances in recent history two years ago was in Dragic somewhere, you had to wonder whether it was coming back. When Dragic was handed more responsibility with a somewhat new mix of players the next year, he hit a roadblock that made you wonder whether he could get over the hump. One year later, Dragic has surged over that hump, carrying the undermanned Houston Rockets up the Western Conference standings.

Everyone who has watched Dragic knows he can play, but everyone in the NBA can play. Why did a trade invigorate Dragic so much this year? To answer that question, we need to look at ourselves first.

We'd like to think that all young players improve. In general, they do. Most players are better on the aggregate at 24 than they are at 22. But we also stretch that too far, assuming that players improve at a steady rate. We build bell curves and project to the future, thinking that all it takes for a young player to improve is time.

As Dragic's case proves, though, it's really not that simple. Player development just isn't linear.

Dragic's circumstances can be explained, but are hardly unique. In his first year in the league, he barely looked like an NBA player. His confidence was fragile and he rushed everything, causing a ton of missed shots and an alarming number of turnovers. The game was simply too fast for him to process. In his second year, though, Dragic had a year of facing NBA defenses under his belt and felt more comfortable with the speed of the game. Suddenly, he could just play, and play he did, emerging as a bench sparkplug that helped lead the Suns to many wins. It was a critical breakthrough for a player whose game depended so much on his confidence.

The problem for Dragic, though, is that things change when you emerge as a young player. Defenses start to devote more pages in their scouting reports to stopping you. Your team hands you more responsibility and gives you a new mix of players because they think you can handle it. Complacency begins to set in, and it's your job to fight it and keep getting better.

All these things helped contribute to Dragic's poor start in 2010-11. NBA defenses started overplaying his left hand. The Suns lost Amar'e Stoudemire and were forced to break up the bench unit that made Dragic's role simpler. Coach Alvin Gentry gave Dragic more play-calling responsibility, and Dragic struggled with comprehending that it's his job to get his teammates into their sets instead of blaming them for their shortcomings. With all this happening, Dragic's fragile confidence left him again and he failed to grow as a player. The Suns trading him for Aaron Brooks was as much about frustration with his development not being linear than anything.

In Houston, Dragic immediately started to play well, but it was a process. First, the Rockets channeled him to the same limited role he had in Phoenix. Kyle Lowry was the starter and Dragic was simply responsible for scoring. That allowed Dragic to at least regain his confidence. But when Lowry went down with a mysterious illness in early March, the Rockets were suddenly forced to confront the same reality Phoenix did when it tried to hand Dragic more responsibility. He failed at being a true floor leader for Phoenix's second unit, so why expect him to thrive leading Houston's first unit? It was a legitimate question.

Here's where the "development is not linear" concept really comes into play. What we failed to realize is that Dragic's poor experience running the Suns' second unit at the beginning of the 2010-11 season actually was necessary for him to grow as a player. It's one thing to tell Dragic that he needs to develop as a leader, improve his right hand and adjust to different defensive schemes. It's another thing for Dragic to experience those shortcomings and how they affect his game. Since becoming a starter in Houston, Dragic has become much more dynamic on the pick and roll and has done a masterful job organizing Houston's offense. Without that failure in Phoenix, how would he know how to improve in those areas?

Other factors helped, of course. A new environment may have been needed for Dragic to get better, of course. Playing alongside Courtney Lee in the backcourt also helps because Lee's low-usage ways allow Dragic to have the ball in his hands more to make plays. But little of that changes the reality that Dragic needed to experience a temporary setback to fully develop his game.

Dragic is the most striking example, but he's just one example. Derrick Rose is now a reigning MVP, but we forget how much he struggled during the first half of his second season. He had to learn that there's no need to always rely on acrobatic layups when he's strong enough to just power through help defenders at the rim. John Wall played through pain and a horrible team to have a good rookie year last season, but instead of breaking out this year, he's been inconsistent as he tries to figure out how to impact games when teams play five feet off him because of his poor jump shot. Will Wall develop like Rose did? It depends on how he grows from his own shortcomings.

As Dragic's story shows, though, these steps back are both natural and necessary. The road to stardom is paved with many detours. Without failure, there cannot be success.