Houston — For most of his first season with the Pistons, Beno Udrih has had a seat on the opposite end of the bench from coach Stan Van Gundy. As the third point guard, he’s been away from the action and mostly has been able to keep his warm-ups on.
For almost two months, Udrih was relegated to the end of the bench, next to one of his closest friends on the team, Boban Marjanovic. They could talk strategy or chat during games but as the Pistons struggled through the season, Udrih started to take on a different role: mentor and grizzled veteran.
At age 34, Udrih is in his 13th season and is gearing his sights toward what his plan will be after his NBA career is done. Right now, all signs seem to be pointing to coaching or working in the front office.
“The very first time I met with him, he said he eventually wanted to coach,” Van Gundy said recently. “He still wants to play going into next year, but when he’s done, he wants to coach.
“From what he sees on the floor and for his natural feel on how to talk to guys, my impression is that he’d be really, really good.”
Van Gundy said the only concern about making the jump from player to coach is the coaching workload, which includes watching game tape. It’s been a growing trend for former players to join the coaching ranks — even on Van Gundy’s staff, with assistant coaches Tim Hardaway and Malik Allen — but also notably with another former Van Gundy assistant, Patrick Ewing, who became the head coach at Georgetown this week.
Some of the prominent coaches in the league, including the Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Tyronn Lue, also are former players.
A big part of coaching in the NBA is building relationships with players and leveraging those to motivate them to improve. It’s something that Udrih has honed in his playing career and already is sharpening his skills with a young Pistons roster that only has a couple players over the age of 28.
“It’s not easy to be a coach. I know that because I’ve been around a lot of coaches. I observe all my teammates and the way they react and I understand both sides,” Udrih said. “Wherever I was, I considered myself a sponge, sucking things in. I observe not just how to be when you do a scouting report, but to see how certain players react to certain things and with young guys coming in.”
While Udrih had played sparingly for the majority of the season, he’s gotten back in the rotation, after starter Reggie Jackson was shut down last month for the remainder of the regular season. Udrih has been solid in a backup role for the last eight games, averaging 5.8 points and 4.4 assists, including a season-high 16 points against the Milwaukee Bucks on March 31.
It’s been a trying transition, as it’s tough for a player who isn’t in the rotation to try to coach or criticize other players. It’s a touchy area, but something that both Van Gundy and Udrih recognize and try to deal with accordingly.
“He talks a lot to guys individually, occasionally to the team and he says a lot to me too on things he sees,” Van Gundy said. “He’s a very smart basketball guy and makes some very good points. It’s always nice to have those guys around.
“He’s not going to be the guy yelling and screaming about playing hard. He’ll grab a guy here and there make his point and teaching points. He has been a very good veteran guy for us because he really knows when and how to use his voice appropriately.”
That veteran presence is needed and noted around the locker room and forward Jon Leuer has seen the benefit — not just now with the Pistons, but also previously with the Memphis Grizzlies, when they were teammates.
“Beno is very vocal; he’s always not only addressing the group but also pulling guys aside. I remember my rookie year seeing him do that a lot. When they talk to him individually or trying to figure things out as a group, he’ll be vocal, even though he hasn’t been around here for a long time, he’s been around the league for a long time,” Leuer said. “Guys understand and appreciate what he’s done and how long he’s been able to stay in the league. He’s very knowledgeable and when a guy like that speaks, people listen.”
Going to school
Udrih said he’s worked during the summer to hone his coaching chops, through the NBA Players Association, which offers coaching workshops and clinics for players. He uses his experience coming up through the ranks in Slovenia to help him figure out how to reach younger players.
“Guys are very talented but the thing is there’s not so enough discipline. When I was growing up at 16 or 17, I was not making those mistakes,” he said. “I’ve never seen after a made basket, the other team goes the opposite way for a 4-on-1 break.
“You don’t have a club league here with one team that has good players. (America) has good players in each state and one state has maybe 10 good players.
“We have a club team in Slovenia with young guys and each club has maybe two good players. When I was 15, I was the best player on my team and had to run the system. AAU, it’s “Here’s the ball — give me 60 points.”
The draw, though, continues to be working with younger players and giving them the best advice and coaching that he can. Udrih has been with eight teams in his career, so he’s seen his share of different methods around the league.
The key, though, is setting on his own, unique technique and getting better with that. There’s no timetable for when he’ll finish his playing career — he insists he still has a couple good years left, but when the time comes, he’s ready for the next step already.
“I definitely think he’ll be a coach someday. I’ve talked to him about front office stuff too and he’s interested in that,” Leuer said. “Whenever his playing days are over, I’m sure he’ll have plenty of opportunities to coach or be in a front office position.”