Beno shows he can still play, but someday he hopes to show he can coach
Gary Dineen (NBAE/Getty)
The domino effect of Reggie Jackson’s preseason knee injury made Beno Udrih a last-minute Piston. Stan Van Gundy wanted a veteran to serve as Ish Smith’s backup while Jackson recuperated and that meant waiting out NBA roster cuts. When Miami shook loose Udrih, the Pistons pounced.
But it meant Udrih had just one practice before the Oct. 26 season opener at Toronto. It seemed logical Udrih would request a cram session to pick the brain of Smith and learn the nuances of Van Gundy’s system or preferences and idiosyncrasies of the players now his teammates.
Instead, less than 24 hours after shaking hands, Udrih was guiding Smith.
“You know what? He’s more or less helped me with different things,” Smith said after shootaround in Toronto. “Back up a little on some passes when we’re doing some specific things, on pick and roll being aggressive, just different stuff like that. He’s most definitely come in and been comfortable.”
In his first conversation with Stan Van Gundy, Udrih told him of his post-playing career ambition.
“The very first time I met with him, he said eventually he wanted to coach,” Van Gundy said. “He still wants to play, but when he’s done he wants to coach.”
And Udrih showed he could still play a little, too, in his team’s overtime loss at Milwaukee. In 21 minutes, Udrih posted season highs of 16 points and eight assists, hitting 7 of 10 shots and turning it over only once.
“Beno was outstanding,” Van Gundy said. “I mean, outstanding.”
Van Gundy has little doubt Udrih will stand out as a coach, too. On a handful of occasions over the course of the season in discussing one issue or another emphasized during team videotape study, Van Gundy has mentioned Udrih volunteering meaningful insight. He piped up recently to point out how much of a difference it made in spacing the floor when a player stood even 2 feet off the desired spot.
When Udrih learned the Pistons had claimed him off of waivers, the most appealing thing to him was the immediate role available backing up Smith and playing meaningful minutes for a 2016 playoff team. But the chance to learn under Van Gundy resonated with him, as well.
“I’ve been (in the NBA) for a while now, so I’ve been following coaches. I always liked the way Stan ran things,” said Udrih, who wants to coach in the NBA but also hold camps and clinics in his native Slovenia. “He’s a good mentor to have if I want to learn to be a coach.”
Van Gundy is certain Udrih has the most fundamental skill necessary in a coach’s toolbox: deep knowledge of the game.
“He’s a very, very smart basketball guy and makes some very, very good points,” he said. “It’s always nice to have those guys around.”
But basketball knowledge and the ability to conceptualize systems of attack don’t mean much without superb communication skills and the instincts to know when and how to use your voice. That’s an even more delicate balance for a player in Udrih’s position, who spent long portions of the season outside the playing rotation as the No. 3 point guard. Knowing when to pick your spots is everything in finding a receptive audience among teammates who might not embrace critical advice from someone who doesn’t need to shower after games.
“He knows he has the respect of everybody,” Van Gundy said. “He did play early in the year and played well. The real key is he knows how and when to use his voice, so people have a respect for him. He’s not talking down to people. He’s not talking from on high as a veteran who’s better than you. He really has a very good way about him and I think he’s made a positive impact on a lot of young guys and certainly on our team as a whole because of that.”
Udrih has learned that different approaches are necessary among players of different ages, too. Younger players can be less open to advice, he’s found, but he enjoys the challenge of finding the right way to open the door to each player’s curiosity.
“Sometimes it’s hard and you do have to pick your spots, but that’s one thing I like about coaching, too,” said the 34-year-old who won an NBA title as a 2004-05 rookie with San Antonio, backing up Tony Parker as the Spurs beat the Pistons in a seven-game Finals. “Trying to pick spots, trying to figure it out. It’s always a big question mark how to help guys, how to help a team. I love that about it.”
With Van Gundy’s decision to sit Jackson over the past four games and possibly beyond, Udrih finds himself in the same role to end the season as he began it – backing up Smith off of Van Gundy’s bench. After a rough outing in New York on Monday, when Udrih – who committed just 19 turnovers in the 21 games Jackson missed to open the season – was guilty of five first-half turnovers against the Knicks. He rebounded with typically solid games against Miami and Brooklyn before shining at Milwaukee.
“Beno’s a pro. He’s great,” Van Gundy said. “He knows how to play the game and you know what you’re going to get out of him. I’ve got great respect for him. He’s a very good player – really knows how to play – and helps other guys play well.”
Someday – not just yet, he insists – he expects to help other guys play well while wearing a suit coat and loafers, not sweats and sneakers.