Having taken the long way back to his first professional club - with stops in between on five different teams across three countries - Predrag Drobnjak has landed with something of a bang again on Partizan Belgrade. After four Euroleague games, he and Partizan are undefeated at home in Group B while Drobnjak, 31, has led the way with the Euroleague's second-best scoring average so far, 18.5 points. Having spent six seasons before with Partizan, Drobnjak's subsequent eight years spent between Euroleague teams Efes Pilsen and Tau Ceramica, plus three different NBA clubs - Seattle, the Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta - do not leave him a stranger in Belgrade. If anything, his return to lead a youthful Partizan team have Drobnjak, as he hints in this Euroleague.net interview, feeling young again. "When you see already a career of 14 years, it looks like too many, maybe, but the truth is we started so young," Drobnjak told Euroleague.net "I think I can still play very easily for four or five more years. Physically and mentally I am in good shape, and I am not bored with basketball at all. Just the opposite."
Hi Pedja. First of all, how does it feel to be back home in Belgrade?
"It feels OK. I feel great, actually. We are 2-2, which is a good start for us. We're just going to keep playing hard. If we can keep doing some of same thing and maintain this position, we can think of reaching our goal, the Top 16, at the end of the round."
It must have been a special decision to go back where you started. Why was this the right time for you to rejoin Partizan?
"It just happened kind of suddenly that Partizan showed interest in bringing me back to the team. At that moment, I thought about it and realized it was the best situation and the right thing to do. Basically, it was my decision whether to play here or not, and in one day I had the decision made. Right now, I feel very good about it. It feels good for me and good in general."
In your return to Europe last season with Tau Ceramica, you reached the Final Four, but your playing time was inconsistent. How do you think about last season?
"When I came back at that time, basically for me the big thing was to get playing time on a good team that had the chance to do something important. Tau Ceramica fit that idea of a good, even great team that could do something big, maybe even with the Euroleague. Then, during the season everything changed on me as far as playing time. It was not even inconsistent. I almost didn't play at all in the second half of the year. So after that, I knew I had to leave, even with two years of a contract left. I was just waiting for a chance for playing time to show I can still do things."
Right now you are the second-best scorer in the Euroleague so far, with 18.5 points per game - more than any full season in your career. Do those numbers prove how comfortable you are right now with this team?
"I didn't know I was second, honestly. You're right, the numbers show that I'm comfortable, but for me, the first thing is winning games, and the second is good stats. I am not one either during a game or during the season to look at the stat sheets. I am just looking to win game, and as much as I can, do something good for my team. Maybe sometimes when a game is over and you have done a good job for the team, you might look, but that's all. I am comfortable here also because I am familiar with the coaches and some of the players, and of course I played here for six seasons a long time ago. I am familiar with the city, even though I wasn't born here, but it all adds to my comfort level."
It was 14 years ago that you joined Partizan's main team. Few players have careers even that long, but having just turned 31, are you eager to show that you have a lot of basketball left in you?
"Yes. Especially in the ex-Yugoslavia, a lot of us started as professionals as kids of 16 or 17 years old. So when you see already a career of 14 years, it looks like too many years, maybe, but the truth is we started so young. I was less than 17 when I played my first game for Partizan. That looks like a long time ago now, but I think I can still play very easily for four or five more years. Physically and mentally I am in good shape, and I am not bored with basketball at all. Just the opposite."
Looking at your career stats, you never shot more three-pointers than in the NBA, with its longer-distance shot. How did you become a long-distance shooter in America?
"No, it wasn't in America. Basically, in my second Euroleague season with Partizan, 1997-98, my coach at the time, Milovan Bogojevic, told me that we needed to create a little space for our big guys inside, and convinced me to start shooting three-point shots. After that, I just kept doing it. In my second NBA season at Seattle, the same thing happened, because they wanted to free up the middle. This year, it might look like I am taking too many three-pointers, but it's just something that happened because of game situations. I don't think it will be that way the rest of the season."
Let's talk about your Partizan team, which is still full of young players. Do any of them remind you of yourself a decade ago?
"I don't know. I haven't thought in that way, but there are four of five real young guys who are real talented and just need some more games to develop in order to be really, really good players. I think they are close. Perovic is in his third or fourth Euroleague season already. Others, like Pekovic and Tepic, are only in their first or second Euroleague seasons. They are all talented and play good and just need to play more Euroleague games to get tougher, to adjust in the way you have to in order to battle against the best teams."
Do you take the role of a teacher for them? Does the club want you to do that?
"I am not looking at myself as a teacher, but when we are talking on a specific point or certain situation, if they ask me or I can see that I've been through something before, I explain what they need to know. I try to do that, but especially if it is something I have been through myself."
Of course, you guys have already beaten Maccabi and Cibona at home. How have the fans reacted to the team and to your return?
"We have a really good fans and a really good atmosphere, with almost 8,000 people at our two home games so far. Maybe we're still a little inexperienced to win away games easily, but with the fan support we are being competitive at least in our home games. I hope we can keep doing that and steal a couple of away games. The fans are ready for it, because as you said, beating Maccabi and Cibona - but especially Maccabi, because we had a really, really good game, especially in three-point shooting as a team - has everyone excited in the arena. As for me, my last season here was eight years ago, but everyone here knows I am a true part of the team because I was a big fan of Partizan not only in basketball, but in all sports. They know me, have seen me around when I came back after my own seasons ended to watch the domestic league here, to follow Partizan. Their reaction to me has been really nice, no complaints."
Since you won two world championships, in 2001 and 2003, Serbian basketball has had trouble on the international stage. Does that make Partizan's role even more important to the fans now?
"This is just the beginning of the season. We are 2-2 and have a long road to go. We have to make it to the Top 16 if we want to make things positive. We and the ULEB Cup teams from around here - FMP, Red Star and Hemofarm - all have good results so far, and all have good chances for the second round. For club basketball in Serbia, things look good, and if we can keep it up, that will bring some kind of brightness compared to the national team situation in the last couple of years."