PHOENIX (AP) — Goran Dragic is back with the Suns, pronouncing himself a far more confident, vocal player than the one Phoenix traded to Houston not too long ago.
As evidence, he displayed his new jersey bearing No. 1, not the No. 2 he wore as Steve Nash's understudy in his first two-plus seasons in the NBA.
"I'm a new guy now," Dragic said at a news conference Thursday. "I'm a different player, a different person from when I was here and I want to have a fresh start here. That's why I take a different number, No. 1. I think that's a good number for me."
The popular point guard signed a four-year, $30 million contract, which can rise to $34 million with incentives, to come back to Phoenix, bolstered by his play as a starter for 28 games with the Houston Rockets last season.
With Nash gone to the Los Angeles Lakers, Dragic will be at the controls, reunited with an obviously elated coach Alvin Gentry. The Suns had pretty much given up on Dragic when they traded him and a draft pick to the Rockets for point guard Aaron Brooks.
But they were more than willing to bring him back, and he was happy to return.
"When I went to Houston I got a lot of opportunity, I was playing 30-35 minutes as a starter," Dragic said. "My confidence went way up. I was not rushing my shots. I was just patient to try and run the team. I think that is the main reason that I am a different player than I was before, because I got opportunity. I don't have any hard feelings for this organization because I left. I think that was good for me to show a lot of people what I can do and I'm really happy to be back."
Still just 25, Dragic said he has grown a lot from that shy youngster from Slovenia who joined the Suns as a second-round draft pick four seasons ago.
"I was a lost kid from Europe," he said. "I didn't speak English so well. It was a lot of things. But now everything's different."
Lon Babby, the Suns president of basketball operations, said the move to Houston "was good for Goran."
"He grew as a player," Babby said, "and then when we assess now we have to do what's best for ourselves going forward and what's best for ourselves is bringing him back. We actually had no hesitation. He left here on the greatest of terms. He returns on the greatest of terms."
Dragic was the backup in Houston, too, until starter Kevin Lowry was injured. The lanky Slovenian took over and never relinquished the role. In those 28 games he started, Dragic averaged 18 points, 8.4 assists and 1.82 steals per contest.
"I think I improved a lot of things, especially how I run the team," he said. "I became more vocal on the court. I think in the past, Alvin knows this best, I was shy on the court. I didn't talk much, but now it's different. I've got that huge confidence. I know I can be a leader. I'm always talking to my players in Houston and coach Kevin (McHale). I think I've improved that communication. I think that's the biggest improvement."
Gentry said it's not surprising for a point guard to take a few years to mature in the pro game.
"You've got to understand that it is the most difficult position in the league to play, so the maturation process takes a little longer sometimes for that position," Gentry said. "You look around the league, some of the guys it takes two, three, four years before the confidence is there and just the ability to verbally run a team. I think Goran has made a tremendous jump in that area."
After learning from Nash, Dragic gets his turn to be the teacher, mentoring first-round draft pick Kendall Marshall, the point guard Phoenix chose out of North Carolina in the first round. He's already had a chance at the Las Vegas Summer League to let the rookie know that bad games happen, and it's important to shrug them off and look to the next one.
Dragic also is happy to be reunited with his former Houston teammate Luis Scola, headed to Phoenix after the Suns were the winning bidder for his services under the league's new amnesty rule.
The lone area the Suns have not addressed is shooting guard. Phoenix signed restricted free agent Eric Gordon, but the New Orleans Hornets matched the offer. Expect some movement in that area over the next week.
Dragic said Nash always told him, "'Kid, just wait for your opportunity. You're going to have one or two opportunities and you have to take advantage of that.'"
He seems to be poised to do just that in his return to the desert.
"Before, I was lost," he said. "It was tough for me, the language, the culture, everything. Now it is much easier. Now I feel like this is my home."