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Goran Dragic wins Most Improved Player, politely tells off the haters

The NBA's 2014 Most Improved Player used negativity to go from disappointing draft pick to the face of the Phoenix Suns.

Christian Petersen

PHOENIX -- After the final Phoenix Suns' television broadcast this season, point guard Goran Dragic followed his postgame interview by thanking the team's broadcast crew for their support. The next day, after exit interviews, he went out of his way to thank beat writers and local TV reporters.

The point guard is conditioned to taking constant criticism, which explains why he was so thankful for positive coverage. And his internalization of all the past criticism might explain why the 27-year-old Slovenian stood on a podium Wednesday to accept the 2014 Most Improved Player award.

"Somebody said that I'm the worst player in the NBA, and my last name should not be Dragic, but 'Tragic,'" Dragic said, referencing comments from former ESPN writer and current Memphis executive John Hollinger. "Every time I was in a practice court, I had this in my mind."

It was hard to deal criticism toward Dragic during the season.

The Slovenian averaged 20.3 points, 5.9 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game in 2013-14, and his biggest leap forward came in his jump shot. By shooting 50.5 percent overall and 40.8 percent from three-point range, Dragic joined a short list of players to average 20 or more points per game while shooting better than 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. The list includes current Suns coach Jeff Hornacek, as well as Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Larry Bird.

More significantly, Dragic is the first guard to reach that mark since the late Drazen Petrovic, a Croatian who Dragic grew up watching in the former Yugoslavia, did so in 1992-93.

The success in Dragic's jumper opened up a slashing ability that put him on the Suns' radar back in 2008. Dragic finished the regular season with the fourth-most driving attempts in the NBA and has the injuries to prove it. He suffered elbow, rib, hip and ankle injuries -- there were five sprains -- yet played 76 games this season.


Photo: Kevin Zimmerman

"It's very difficult, the pounding you take, but Goran's tough," Hornacek said. "He's one of the best at taking the ball to the basket. He's got a good athletic ability. If there's a word to describe him, the word is probably 'fearless.'"

Dragic, whose English has improved as much as his game since coming to Phoenix as a rookie, has tried to talk about his "haters," but he can't do it without a smile and a bit of comical awkwardness. When he was introduced Wednesday as the NBA's MIP, he approached the podium by first admitting he was nervous to speak in front of a hundred or so Suns employees.

"Off the court I'm always shy, I don't talk much," Dragic said. "On the floor I'm a different guy. I can express my will on the court. I'm kind of, how you say ... a little bit cocky and try to fight some guys."

Verbally, Dragic never gets across what he does on the court without getting some chuckles.

That warmth is why Suns owner Robert Sarver is thankful he gave $500,000 to former executive David Griffin during the 2008 draft, when Phoenix moved up to select Dragic 45th overall. It's why current president of basketball ops Lon Babby is thankful he and Sarver signed the point guard as a free agent last summer. The signing came more than a year after the Suns traded Dragic to Houston in exchange for Aaron Brooks, prompting former general manager Lance Blanks to say the Suns had improved their chances "in the short term and possibly in the long term."

"We won't discuss why it was necessary to bring him back as a free agent," Babby said on Wednesday, half-seriously.

Dragic's MIP press conference may have been done up so nicely because of the NBA's sponsorship with Kia, or the fact the event was broadcast on NBATV. Or it could be viewed as the culmination of a season in which a surprising 48 wins didn't lead to a playoff berth. Might as well make this the big celebration.

It might have meant more for the Suns because the organization has been through so much over the last four years, the longest stretch of lottery-bound seasons since 1970-75. Sarver admitted that he might have clung on to the Steve Nash era too long. The rebuilding process has included a desperation signing of Michael Beasley two summers ago, an ugly exodus of head coach Alvin Gentry and assistants Elston Turner and Dan Majerle, then the firing of Blanks last summer.

Even after hiring general manager Ryan McDonough and surpassing this year's expectations, Phoenix's season has been filled with consolation prizes -- Dragic's MIP award rather than an All-Star appearance might be one of them.

Still, the franchise found the first player since Nash it can comfortably count on. Though McDonough is openly searching for another star and Eric Bledsoe's free agency is next on the to-do list, the Suns have a face. As much as Nash did for Phoenix and for Dragic, who took the former locker of the two-time MVP, his name wasn't mentioned during Dragic's day.

The Suns have finally moved on, and the man of the hour finally had his podium to tell off the haters, even if it came off politely.

"Even people back home, when I went to the NBA they were questioning whether I was good enough, I'm skinny, I don't have outside shot," he said. "As a player, sometimes that criticism, you just have to take that and try to convert it into motivation."