Beno Udrih smiled at the question, which made sense, considering the question was about the wonder, comfort, ease with which Goran Dragic comports himself.
Had he ever seen his fellow Slovenian point guard and former Miami Heat backcourt partner get in a teammate’s face, lash out, let loose?
“If he did,” Udrih said, “he didn’t do it in public. I guess it’s the different culture. Vocal? Yes. But, no, not in somebody’s face.”
In the NBA context, such moments practically define leadership. Yet, through Dragic’s first eight NBA seasons, there typically was either a more-talented or more-vocal teammate to rage when needed.
And then came another bout of blood clots for Chris Bosh. And the departure of Dwyane Wade to the Chicago Bulls in free agency. And such a limited role for Udonis Haslem that the Heat captain has became more coach than contemporary.
With this Heat team, with the newness of so many teammates, the wavering maturity of Hassan Whiteside, the precociousness of all those neophytes alongside, it became apparent early on, starting in training camp, that there would be a need for Dragic to return to his Adriatic roots.
“In Slovenia, it’s a little bit easier because it’s in my language,” he said of the leadership challenge posed this season. “Last year, if I had something to say, I said it. But this year, it’s even more.”
Understand, when Dragic has the rare moments of acting out, the technical fouls, the ejections, such as one this season against the Los Angeles Lakers, there almost immediately is contrition, even when challenging the fairness. When the voice is raised in the locker room, it often is with laughter, sometimes through a cracked tooth.
“Let me put it this way,” he said, “I curse, but behind closed doors.”
What he won’t accept is being taken off his game. So he doesn’t rage, but rather seethes.
“If something is not going right, something is going on inside me. Maybe I don’t show that on the outside,” he said. “But maybe I don’t show that on the outside because I feel like it kind of throws me off if I’m that guy.”
But he has become that guy this season. And when the record was careening to 11-30 at midseason, the challenges that were issued in the locker room were issued from his corner locker, about lazy defense, selfish offense, cutting corners. The accent was different, but the words channeled the very diatribes Wade had offered the previous Heat decade.
That, coach Erik Spoelstra said, has been a major step forward in stepping up to the leadership challenge.
“And,” Spoelstra said, “I love seeing his growth and him embracing getting uncomfortable to do it. Now, you have to develop your own voice as a leader, and he does not have to be an angry leader. He can do it in whatever passionate voice and emotion that fits him.
“Winning means something to him. And that’s where you start with leadership, is bringing other people with you to make winning that important. And it’s uncomfortable for the majority of leaders, to take that first step. And that’s where he’s been very open to his growth. It’s not just about becoming a better offensive player. It’s not about only becoming a better two-way player, which he’s improved on both those things. By becoming a true winner in this league, you can affect it on so many different levels. And leadership is just as important as making a three or getting a defensive stop.”
Haslem said the response has been one of embrace.
“He leads by example,” the Heat captain said. “He comes in, he plays through injuries, gives everything he has every day. He’s become more and more vocal.”
That’s when Haslem stopped, paused, smiled.
“Understanding him is another challenge,” he said, with Dragic’s gravely intonations exacerbated by ire. “But he’s become more and more vocal as the season’s gone on. Earlier, he wasn’t very vocal, but he always played hard and brought that energy and that effort. But now he’s becoming more vocal, and that’s what we need from him.”
Dragic spoke during training camp of the anticipated challenge. But only when the games started, and the losses started to mount, did he recognize that reserved might not be the right nature, even if it was second nature.
“I’m more vocal now,” he said. “If I need to say something, I say it to the guys. It was kind of uncomfortable for me at first, but I think Spo and my teammates, they allowed me to grow. And I think it’s much better right now.”
Along the way, the messages hit home, the losses stopped, the winning streak reached 13 and there now have been 14 victories in the 16 games leading to this All-Star break, a playoff berth again within view.
Mostly because of Dragic’s pace, playmaking, poise.
But also because he has voiced what has mattered. And loudly enough that it resonated throughout the locker room.
“When it really becomes so important to you to win,” Spoelstra said, “you’ll do things that are uncomfortable, and Goran has gotten to that point. More importantly, he understands that it’s required for this team. We need the veteran leadership.”