Beno Udrih is a huge story for the Kings this season. Huge on the court because he's the starting point guard, huge off the court because they're into him for $32.7 million over five seasons, huge because of his past and what it means for the present.
Pressure and expectations were never his thing. Let's put it that way. And now he's got pressure and expectations.
Udrih has gone from the underdog success story of 2007-08 (traded from San Antonio to Minnesota for a second-round pick in October, waived by the Timberwolves the same day, signed on the cheap by the Kings) to a guy whose positive contributions will no longer be found money, the way they were while filling in for the injured Mike Bibby and eventually replacing the traded Bibby. They're necessary.
We know Udrih's timing is perfect -- 12.8 points a game and 46.4 percent from the field, just before hitting a free-agent market that included few starting point guards as the Kings stared at a roster without any point guards. Even better for him, it was as an unrestricted free agent, so Sacramento would not be able to hang back with the comfort of knowing it could match any offer. The negotiations had to be aggressive.
What no one knows is whether Udrih is the player who needed a change of scenery to find his stride and now is ready to be a consistent, tough leader on the court or a one-hit wonder with many more bad times than good in three previous shrinking seasons with the Spurs.
An average of $6.54 million annually for a player whose teammates in San Antonio, the only other stop of Udrih's NBA career, mocked his fragility behind his back and came to doubt his dependability. It wasn't that he remained a reserve; Tony Parker started and very few point guards in the entire league could beat him out. It's that Udrih struggled to stay in the rotation as the playoff-bound Spurs came to choose more dependable over more talent.
The Spurs have seen a lot more of him than the Kings. The Spurs' words matter.
So, the words of Spurs general manager R.C. Buford.
Question: What did you see from last season after he joined the Kings that looked different from what guys had seen for years?
Answer: Mainly that he got the opportunity to play through gaining his confidence back. It was just a different accountability level being thrust on our group when you're trying to compete for championships every year. You don't have opportunities to live through mistakes. Beno got to do that (last season). You knew he would grow pretty quickly once that happened.
Q: Was the difference noticeable? Is that something that, watching on TV or seeing him in person, you could see he was carrying himself differently?
A: For sure.
Q: Was that a confidence thing?
A: Confidence. I think an eagerness to play. I'm not sure he'd been having as much fun and it looked like he was having fun again. Not being worried about going and making plays.
Q: Is his talent unquestioned?
A: Yeah. If you watched his rookie year, he played 18 minutes a game on a team that won a championship. I think we prematurely listened to the last three games he played in the Finals at a level that very few rookies are ready to play. (Udrih's last three games in those 2005 Finals against the Pistons: seven minutes, 0-0 FG, two assists, three turnovers in Game 3; 11 minutes, 2-5 FG, zero assists, two turnovers in Game 4; one minute, 0-0 FG in Game 6. DNP-CD in Games 5 and 7. For the series: 4-11 FG / 36.4 percent, eight turnovers, four assists.) I think we probably overreacted in our evaluation of that.
Q: In what way?
A: Before the season started the next season, we had given all the backup minutes to Nick Van Exel and then the year after that to Jacque Vaughn. He (Udrih) was never really able to establish the rotational minutes that he had as a rookie.
Q: When you get a contract like he got this summer, it changes the expectations. People will look at him differently now. How do you think he's going to handle that, knowing him as you do?
A: But I think as far as having the opportunity to play, if Beno plays, he'll play through mistakes and make plays. He's not afraid to go make plays. And I think when he plays with that freedom that there's a pretty good chance you're going to get some good work.