Many struggle to express themselves in a second language, to summon the proper words to express honest feelings. Goran Dragic has no such trouble.
His English is considerably clearer than most athletes, actually, without facade or filter.
He is refreshingly honest in his responses to reporters and was again Friday night when asked about the start of the 106-82 win against Dallas, during which he was darting around screens, dashing to the basket and stepping into his jumper, all with a briefly dizzy Dwyane Wade watching from the locker room.
Did that absence make it easier?
“Yeah, definitely,” Dragic said softly.
Don’t misunderstand. The Heat point guard isn’t calling for the 11-time All-Star to come off the bench, which is less likely than a blizzard freezing Biscayne Bay anyway. Nor has Dragic carped about the challenges of working with Wade and others on the Heat roster. He has merely acknowledged the issues while attempting to address them.
Now, with 50 games left, his progress represents one of the most promising possibilities of the Heat season. In October and November, Dragic played 16 games, averaging 10.6 points and 4.4 assists while shooting 42.3 percent from the field. In December and January, he has now played 15 games, averaging 12.8 points and 6.3 assists while shooting 48.2 percent from the field.
Dragic said it typically takes about half of a season to master a system, but it’s not just about the system. “You also need to get to know the players,” he said. “Where they want the ball, where are the best spots for them.”
He has actually played more minutes per game with Luol Deng (25.9) than anyone else, but they’ve had an easy chemistry since the start; Dragic, like most point guards, has always worked well with those who move off the ball but don’t need a ton of touches, which describes Deng. The connections with Wade (24.8 minutes), Hassan Whiteside (23.9) and Chris Bosh (22.4) have required more work, though for very different reasons.
The complications of the Dragic-Wade dynamic are well-documented. Both, to a degree, require the ball in their hands to be most effective. Dragic likes to blur down the court. Wade prefers to take his time. Wade expects the ball at closing time, and Dragic has been deferential in that regard, though he did note after Tuesday’s loss in Memphis that the Heat is most dangerous “when everybody is getting their shots; sometimes I feel like the fourth quarter, it’s like 1-on-5, 2-on-5, just pick-and-roll in the middle and that’s it. It’s kind of hard.”
While they haven’t exactly lit the league up — they’re a plus-0.7 points per 100 possessions — they have looked less like they’re taking turns, switching off dictating possessions until Wade dictates most at the end. They’re using the dribble handoff more, to ensure that each gets a touch on a possession.
“It’s getting there,” Dragic said, citing recent games in Memphis and Orlando. “I know when I need to attack, when I need to get everyone else involved. It’s much easier.”
It’s looked easier, for sure, than his collaboration with Whiteside. Even Friday, during Whiteside’s career offensive night, he and Dragic misconnected at times. They are a plus-1.9 points per 100 possessions together, but that might increase if they can sort out Whiteside’s screening. Dragic likes the screen set directly between him and the basket — he believes that, in addition to freeing him for layups, it will help him get to his favorite shot, the stepback jumper.
“We are talking a lot,” Dragic said. “He’s such a wide, big body. If he is really setting the screen, he’s going to be even more open. He’s such a big target down there. When he rolls really fast to the basket, everybody is so afraid of the lob. Everybody shrinks, and then we got open shooters. You can pass. You can attack again. It’s a lot of options.”
Whiteside believes they’ve “come far,” and that he’s “getting an understanding.”
“I kind of picked it up with D-Wade naturally,” Whiteside said. “Goran is a little different than D-Wade. Goran likes to go to the basket real fast. D-Wade likes to cross back and take his time, and look for the late lob.”
This distinction shows in the statistics. Whiteside has 54 assists from Wade and just 20 from Dragic. Meanwhile, Dragic has assisted Bosh — with whom he had never played — 43 times, even more than Wade (32) has.
Dragic has clicked with Bosh best — they’re a plus-6.3 per 100 possessions together.
“Oh, that’s money,” Dragic said. “CB is really easy to play with.”
So the Heat has essentially paired up.
“When D [Wade] handles the ball, he’s playing [pick and roll] with Hassan,” Dragic said. “When I handle the ball, it’s more with CB.”
Dragic and Bosh have worked together a few times after practice and are learning when to pick-and-pop, pick-and-short roll, pick-and-slip or pick-and-dive, depending on the defensive counter. Bosh explained that Wade fits better with Whiteside because he tends to play “in between,” whereas Dragic is always pushing pace.
“We call him Go-Run,” Bosh said, demonstrating while laughing.
At last, Dragic’s season is off and running.