Report Card - Sasha Vujacic
There aren't a lot of guys on an NBA roster (much less the Lakers') in whom I've had less faith than Sasha Vujacic. Not because I didn't want him to succeed, or because I didn't think he worked enough to make it happen. Quite the opposite on both counts. Nice kid, hard worker, great drive, hustles 24/7. All elements that made me actively root for him, but not necessarily believe his well-documented ability to shoot lights out in practice (the dreaded "11:30" tag) would translate into quality play once the games actually started. Mind you, Sasha always insisted he could play at the NBA level, assuming he got a crack at consistent PT. But even if I did buy that theory (which I didn't), this season began looking like he wouldn't even get a chance to prove it, as Sasha started out buried on the depth chart, alternating between garbage time and DNP-CDs.
Then a long-awaited opportunity emerged, along with my eventual need to bake some crow at 375 degrees for half an hour, slap it on a plate, and eat heartily.
A November trade moved Mo Evans to Orlando and thrust Sasha into the role of Kobe Bryant's main backup, ready or not. As it turns out, the answer was "ready." The returns weren't immediate, but once he fell into a groove, Vujacic really took off. Career highs were set for PPG, FG%, FGA, 3PT% and rebounds. And as a gander at his career lines reveals, this wasn't solely the result of bumped minutes. Sasha's non-stop energy was still on display, but this time around, it didn't come off like a coked-out puppy frantically desperate to please his owner and avoid getting sent to the pound. Whether he began relaxing on the court because he desperately needed to (as I've felt for a while) or because he felt like one mistake would no longer get him yanked (an explanation he often cited), the difference in demeanor was obvious. Shots weren't launched the second the ball met his hand (at least not every time, as old habits die hard). The "six inches from your grill" defensive style remained, but it was accompanied by better reactions and fewer silly fouls 50 feet from the basket. Most strikingly, Sasha transformed from someone I was barely comfortable being in the arena (much less on the floor) with during crunch time to a dependable fourth-quarter mainstay, often being counted on for crucial defensive stops.
Sasha didn't abandon every trait of old. "The Face" - a timeless
"elbows in, palms up, bugged out eyes" disbelieving reaction to a whistle that never fails to
entertain - lives on. Unfortunately, so do a few quirks not nearly as much fun. I can't verify this for sure, since 82games.com
doesn't track this stat, but I'm pretty sure Sasha led in the league in
"Taking the ball into the painted area without any real game plan." At
this point, the front office simply agrees to disagree with Sasha's
notion that he can run the point. As mentioned earlier, he's not
entirely immune to shot-happiness. And by his own admission, Sasha can
get too emotional when things aren't going well, a response that
happened on a few occasions during the playoffs (and especially the
Finals). But those critiques fall around the margins. All in all,
Vujacic's season represented nothing short of a breakthrough, not to
mention a clear indication that I don't always know what I'm talking
about when it comes to evaluating potential.
It'll be interesting to see what happens with Sasha this off-season. On one hand, he's a player the Lakers would wisely like to bring back and he's expressed interest in returning. On the other, there's a limit to the cash they can (and should) match. If someone's willing to throw much more than MLE money Vujacic's way, unless the front office sees him as a starter in the very near making (with Kobe at the 3), I'm guessing they'll let him walk. But if it's in the 4-5 mil range, I'd be stunned if the offer isn't matched.
Final Grade: B+ And in reference to Sasha's season, I have another mark to dole out to the TNT, ESPN and ABC broadcasters....
F, For their continual reporting that Sasha dubbed himself "The Machine," despite his steady claims otherwise. Seriously, how hard would it have been for any of these folks to ask a member of the local media for the real story, which is that Joel Meyers coined the nickname? A perfectly believable story, too, considering Meyers used to talk about how "The Sasha Factor" could affect games back when Slovenia's Favorite Son wasn't even particularly good. It was embarrassing to watch these guys make fools of themselves.