PHOENIX (AP) — Of course, the NBA’s most improved team would have its most improved player.
Goran Dragic, whose breakout season helped the Phoenix Suns make a remarkable transformation, was presented the most improved award at a ceremony Wednesday at US Airways Center.
The 6-foot-3 Slovenian, who turns 28 in two weeks, flourished under first-year coach Jeff Hornacek’s double-point guard system, teaming with Eric Bledsoe to form a dynamic backcourt.
“We’re looking for players who can go out there every night and lay it all out there,” Hornacek said, “play through injuries, do everything the coaches ask, play with confidence. That’s what Goran did.”
Dragic averaged 20.5 points and 5.9 assists per game, shooting 50.5 percent from the field, 40.8 percent on 3-pointers. He was the only player in the NBA to shoot better than 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range.
“The main thing was my confidence this year,” he said. “I feel that my teammates, they trust me. The coaches trust me. I can play my game, be confident, be tough and then shoot the ball better.”
Dragic recalled the doubters when he came into the league.
“I can remember one quote from a newspaper, somebody said that I’m the worst player in the NBA and my last name should not be Dragic but ‘tragic,'” he said. “That sticks in your head. It sticks in my head. On the practice court, I always have this in my mind.”
Dragic received 408 of a possible 1,134 points, including 65 first-place votes, from a panel of 126 sports writers and broadcasters in the United States and Canada. Indiana’s Lance Stephenson was second with 158 points and 13 first-place votes, and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis third with 155 points and 16 first-place votes.
Two other Suns were among the top 10 — Gerald Green fourth and Markieff Morris 10th.
Under Hornacek, who finished second to San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich for NBA coach of the year, the Suns went from 25-57 in 2012-13 to 48-37 last season, a 23-win improvement, and they barely missed making the playoffs in the tough Western Conference.
While the Suns were at their best when Dragic and Bledsoe both played, Dragic had to carry the brunt of the scoring and playmaking load when Bledsoe was out for two months following knee surgery.
The left-handed Dragic is in his second stint with Phoenix. He was drafted in 2008 by San Antonio in the second round, the 45th pick overall, then was traded to the Suns for Malik Hairston, the 48th pick.
Dragic was groomed to be Steve Nash’s successor but just before the trade deadline in February 2011, the Suns sent him to Houston for Aaron Brooks. Brooks languished in Phoenix, and after Nash was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers following the 2011-12 season, the Suns brought Dragic back, signing the free agent to a four-year, $30 million contract. He can opt out of the deal after next season.
Dragic and the rest of the Suns struggled through a miserable 2012-13 season, but with the hiring of Hornacek and new general manager Ryan McDonough, everything changed.
Hornacek said he could see Dragic’s emerging leadership when he watched the guard play for the Slovenian national team last summer.
“We could tell from watching him that he was in charge of that team and that he has taken that next step,” Hornacek said. “That’s the sign of a great player, when he can take his game to another level.”
Dragic credited the freedom and confidence that Hornacek and his staff gave him and the rest of the team. Now he and the Suns won’t be a surprise but will be expected to win.
“Next year, of course, there’s going to be pressure,” Dragic said. “I’m not scared of pressure. I always like to take any challenges that you guys (reporters) or guys on opposing teams give me.”
Dragic was married last offseason and has a new son, Mateo. His wife and son were in the crowd when he was presented the trophy.
Asked how he could be so low-key and at ease off the court and such a dynamo on it, he said it was basically a split personality.
“Off the court, I’m always shy, don’t talk much. I’m kind of calm,” he said. “But on the floor, I’m a different guy. I can express my will on the court. I’m kind of cocky.”
He is the third Suns player to win the award, following Kevin Johnson in 1988-89 and Boris Diaw in 2005-06.
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