Udrih ready to hit the ground running with Pistons after 1 practice

Beno Udrih, a 12-year veteran, will open the season as Pistons backup point guard on Wednesday at Toronto.
Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The NBA experience Stan Van Gundy wanted in a point guard to back up Ish Smith while Reggie Jackson recuperates was on display in Beno Udrih’s first practice.

“He’s a smart guy. He’s been around. He’s got almost 800 games of experience,” Van Gundy said of Udrih, who didn’t become Pistons property until they were granted his rights via a waiver claim at 5 p.m. Monday and was on a flight to Detroit a few hours later. “It’s not like we’ve got some play here that he’s never seen. He was already talking to the players, some of our young guys, on execution and where he wants them on pick and rolls.”

Udrih, 34, becomes the oldest Piston by five years, grabbing the title of most experienced from Aron Baynes. The Pistons become the eighth NBA stop for the 12-year veteran from Slovenia. He’ll waste no time making his debut, entering Wednesday’s season opener at Toronto probably sometime late in the first quarter for Smith.

“The challenge is to go in there and do what I’ve been doing for my entire career,” Udrih said after Tuesday’s practice, which began for him around 7:30 a.m. when he had a one-hour cram session with Pistons assistant coach Charles Klask on terminology and offensive sets. “Just trying to be solid, trying to make sure the guys are in the right position and get us into offensive set and then be vocal and try to help this team win as many games as I can.”

Udrih is a point guard through and through, skilled at running offense and accentuating the strengths of his teammates. Two of his new sidekicks have crossed paths with Udrih before. He was teammates with Jon Leuer in both Memphis (2013-15) and Milwaukee (2011-12). Leuer and Tobias Harris were rookies with the Bucks in 2011-12 when Udrih averaged 18 minutes a game behind Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis in the backcourt. Harris and Udrih were packaged by the Bucks in February 2013 and shipped to Orlando in a deal for J.J. Redick.

Leuer will be one of Udrih’s playing partners with the second unit. Van Gundy said Tuesday that Aron Baynes, who suffered a broken nose a week ago, was able to return to practice on Tuesday and that Stanley Johnson would be first among the group of wings – Reggie Bullock, Darrun Hilliard and rookie Michael Gbinije the others – who battled to be first off the bench behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marcus Morris. Udrih now orchestrates that unit.

“It definitely makes it a little easier,” Udrih said about having a few friendly faces. “We’re familiar with each other’s games, so I’m excited to be playing with them again.”

Udrih got the call from his agent late Monday afternoon that he was going to the Pistons and said he was immediately excited, remembering well the improvement he saw in them last season.

“Them playing against Cleveland, whoever watched those games, yeah, it was four-zero, but I don’t think it was an easy series for Cleveland,” he said. “Especially that first game. If Detroit would win that game, could go different way. I definitely think that the team is even better this year.”

He’ll have a hand in helping them get there. Van Gundy anticipates playing 20 games without Jackson and feels Udrih’s experience was a surer firewall in his absence than handing the job to Ray McCallum.

The Pistons went down to the wire with Lorenzo Brown and McCallum as the contenders for the final roster spot, each playing three of the six preseason games behind Smith. They waived Brown on Saturday and went with McCallum, Van Gundy saying the tipping point was McCallum’s greater NBA experience – 154 NBA games to 63.

Van Gundy said last week he didn’t anticipate anyone being made available via waivers that would be attractive to the Pistons. They felt Miami would probably cut either young Briante Weber or, perhaps, Udrih. They would up cutting both and keeping only combo guard Tyler Johnson behind starter Goran Dragic at point guard. Rodney McGruder, a shooting guard on a non-guaranteed deal, made the Heat over both.

“You never expect a guy with a guaranteed contract to get cut,” Van Gundy said. “We started to get an inkling over the weekend that it might happen. We were really surprised because they cut both he and Briante Weber. It was a little bit surprising. We knew who – if they were cut – we’d be interested in. You’re just waiting at that point.”

Van Gundy said the phone call to McCallum, whom he’s known since he and Ray McCallum Sr. were on staff at Wisconsin in the ’90s, was the toughest of his NBA career.

“He’s the type of person any organization would want and I’d love to have him back at some point,” Van Gundy said. “If Reggie hadn’t gotten hurt, this would’ve never come up. He just got caught in a little bit of an unfortunate situation.”