Twenty-seven years after his tragic departure on June 7th, 1993, basketball fans across the world remember and mourn the first international player who had the privilege of becoming a franchise player in the NBA – Drazen Petrovic.
After all the countless articles, numerous books, documentaries, and reportedly a movie in the making, there are still so many ‘What ifs’ considering the memorable career of the Mozart of basketball.
One of the most intriguing dilemmas which are still causing a passionate discussion among Drazen’s fans worldwide is the question “Could Drazen Petrovic play the point guard position in the NBA?”
Those who claim that he couldn’t do it explain it with the fact that he couldn’t handle the much faster and athletic point guards of that era, such as Muggsy Bogues, Tim Hardaway, and Kevin Johnson.
But some claim that his remarkable dribbling and passing skills, at times reminiscent of the legendary Pete Maravich, in combination with his long-range shooting ability, would have blend in well within some of the team’s systems.
If John Stockton and Mark Price could do it at the time and make the All-Star game, why wouldn’t he?
As a student of the game, who spent every moment to work on his game and improve as a player, there was no much he couldn’t do. For Drazen playing the point guard position wasn’t an ‘if’ but a ‘when.’ Although he had chosen to stay in Europe after the Portland Trail Blazers selected him in the 1986 NBA draft, he remained in touch with the team officials.
During the 1988 Olympic qualification tournament in the Netherlands, he was approached by the Blazers GM Bucky Buckwalter. Buckwalter was glad to see Drazen perform well while playing at the point guard position for the rejuvenated Yugoslavian NT, now coached by Dusan’ Duda’ Ivkovic.
“Today Bucky Buckwalter told me for Portland I will be a playmaker. You see this game today? I have 15 assists.”Dražen Petrović, via Sports illustrated
Back then, it looked like Petrovic could eventually do the same for the Portland Trail Blazers when the time arrives. He got his wish in the late summer of 1989.
Petrovic finally decided to pursue a career in the NBA. But when he came to Oregon, the team he came to wasn’t nearly the same as the one that drafted him three years ago.
With the arrivals of power forwards Buck Williams and Cliff Robinson, new Blazers head coach Rick Adelman emphasized focus on rebounding and fastbreaks, things he considered crucial for the Blazers eventual path to the championship level. Also, after a series of great seasons together, the starting guard combination of Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler became untouchable.
Petrovic, who came to Portland encouraged by his strong showing at the 1989 Eurobasket, where he was voted as the MVP of competition, had to prove himself all over again.
At the age of 24, substantially slowed down by preseason surgery and recovery, European basketball king had to listen, learn, and deliver at the same time. From the very beginning, Drazen was used almost exclusively at the shooting guard position.
After multiple great performances in February and March 1990, and with the Blazers thriving on course to the strong postseason, Adelman finally decided to test what else could ‘Petro’ do out there.
Maybe having a three-guard rotation as Detroit’s wouldn’t be such a bad idea? Maybe Petrović can provide us with some quality minutes at the point guard spot? Maybe we can move Drexler to the small forward spot and, at times use Porter as a shooting guard?
The chance to test Petrovic’s overall ability and capacity to cover the point guard position duties came on the March 30th, 1990, when the Blazers visited the Lakers in Los Angeles.
Petrovic was delighted by the opportunity he was eagerly awaiting. He got the minutes and the shots, but he was asked to create from the point guard position. During the fourth quarter alone, Petro had over a dozen touches with the ball, which resulted in 7 points and 3 assists – all three of those came in the second half of the fourth quarter.
The beneficiary of Petrovic’s great dishes was his colleague at the shooting guard position, rookie Byron Irvin, who poured in 7 points in as many minutes spent on the floor of the Great Western Forum.
On January 21st, 1991, as a part of the three-team trade, Petrovic was traded to the New Jersey Nets. There, while blossoming into one of the league’s leading shooting guards of the early 1990s, he was rarely asked to take over the point guard duties by the Nets head coaches Bill Fitch and Chuck Daly.
The definite answer to this perpetual dilemma among Drazen’s fans across the world would be much easier if Drazen somehow decided to leave Europe immediately after the 1986 NBA draft, eventually joining the 1986-87 Portland Trail Blazers coached by the NBA Coach of the Year Mike Schuler.
Adelman’s answer to the dilemma was simple – before the 1990-91 campaign, the Blazers acquired free agent Danny Ainge who covered both guard positions for the title contenders in 1990-91 and 1991-92.