By Will Robinson
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - With his slight 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame, Goran Dragić and his boyish facial hair are unassuming. But when he's on the court, the 27-year-old Slovenian is one of the NBA's shiftiest and most explosive players.
This season, with the Phoenix Suns battling for a Western Conference playoff spot late in an NBA season that many of the team's fans originally had low expectations for, Dragić has proved to be one of the league's premier, tenacious guards.
"Sometimes, he's so aggressive, and he does that early on, but he does that to get the defense drawn to him," said Suns guard Gerald Green. "And it makes it a lot easier for us to go out and there and be successful, go out there and make plays because he's got three or four guys watching him at all times."
In 2008, the San Antonio Spurs drafted Dragić 45th overall and traded him to Phoenix two days later.
Turning pro at 17, Dragić spent his pre-NBA career playing primarily in Slovenia, winning the country's league title with his hometown side Olimpija Ljubljana before leaving for the United States.
Dragić always had his trademark aggressiveness. But he needed to alter his game to compete stateside.
"When I was in Europe, I was not a jump-shooter, because it was so easy to get to the paint," he says. "When I came to the NBA, it's so much tougher to get to the basket. I had to develop a different style of game.
"You just have to adapt, like every job."
For three seasons, he played understudy to Steve Nash, one of the all-time great point guards. Not only did Nash mentor the young Dragić in how to excel on the court, the developing guard learned how to manage his career off it, such as healthy eating and dedicated offseason preparation.
Phoenix traded Dragić to Houston three years ago but he returned in mid-2012 as a free agent before enduring a 25-57 season that left the Suns last in the Western Conference.
The team fired head coach Alvin Gentry and tabbed former Suns player Jeff Hornacek, who wanted to pick up the team's pace from which it recently deviated.
"My rookie year when I was with the Suns, I liked to play that style: up-tempo game, try to run a lot," said Dragić. "Last year, we were more of a half-court team. But now, when Jeff came back, he told us he wanted to have the old Suns back: two guards like Kevin Johnson, Jason Kidd and Jeff, and try to push up-tempo and try to score as many points as we can."
With running mate Eric Bledsoe, the Suns fired out of the gate, jumping to a 19-11 record before Bledsoe injured his knee in December. He's expected to return for Wednesday's game versus Cleveland, a welcome relief for a team that went 17-16 during his absence.
But Dragić has helped keep the Suns afloat, averaging over 22 points, nearly four rebounds and 6-1/2 assists per game in that span.
"Goran's had to handle the ball a lot more and really get us into that up-and-down game that we want to get into," said Hornacek. "It's taking a toll on him; he's looking tired."
"I didn't have the opportunity to work this summer on my individual game because I was playing for my national team, so I think that helped me a lot," said Dragić. "I came to the training camp prepared; I was in great shape, and I was game ready. My confidence went up."
While he may earn a prestigious All-NBA team nod, he didn't make the All-Star team, something that drives him.
"I was kinda sad, disappointed, but that's already behind me," said Dragić. "I try to look at it as a positive thing. I'm going to have a great motivation next year to try to again be in the conversation for the All-Star Game."
(Reporting By Will Robinson; Editing by Frank Pingue)