Sasha Vujacic excited about possible increased duties at point guard
Sasha Vujacic's eyes lit up. His smile widened. And his enthusiasm bubbled.
A reporter had asked him about the possibility he'd play more at point guard next season, what with the uncertainty regarding the future of Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar, as well as Mitch Kupchak's contention that the team's back court is the biggest area of concern during the off-season. Though the Lakers' roster for 2010-2011 is far from complete, the mere chance that Vujacic would assume a greater role at point guard left him giddy and excited.
"I love it; I'm not going to lie to you," said Vujacic, who had also assumed more point guard duties with the Slovenian national team. "It's a big responsibility.... I'm up for the challenge."
Barring the Lakers not making any trade proposals involving Vujacic as they unsuccessfully tried last season, Vujacic doesn't have to worry much these days about free agency. He's taken time to relax, follow the World Cup and travel to Wimbledon to watch girlfriend Maria Sharapova, who was recently eliminated by top-seed Serena Williams. But with one year remaining on his contract worth $5.5 million, Vujacic clearly knows how important it is to ride the late-season success, including the two clutch free throws he made in Game 7 of the NBA Finals with 11.7 seconds remaining to secure the win and the title."It's no secret," Vujacic said of his contract status. "Not only for myself but I really want to do good for the team. The team wants it."
That includes the possibility that Vujacic assumes more duties at point guard, something that appeared unthinkable last season after his minutes (8.6) and points (2.8) were nearly cut in half from a season ago. Each time his minutes and production picked up, he suffered an injury, including a right shoulder sprain on Feb. 19 against Boston and a left ankle sprain in the Lakers' season finale against the Clippers.
Each injury halted Vujacic's surge in production. Before his injury against Boston, Vujacic's minutes had picked up during Kobe Bryant's five-game absence because of a sprained left ankle. There was a clear increase in production in those games compared to his season average, including points (2.5 to 4.4), rebounds (1.1 to 2.0) and assists (0.6 to 1.8). Before his injury against the Clippers, Vujacic scored a season-high 13 points against Sacramento the previous night, prompting Lakers Coach Phil Jackson to suggest Vujacic would receive heavy minutes in the postseason. It provided a remarkable possibility, considering Vujacic essentially played himself out of the rotation two weeks earlier after arguing with assistant coaches during the Lakers' 91-75 loss to Oklahoma City.
Even though Vujacic returned in time for the Western Conference finals, Vujacic only played in three of the six games. He surely didn't help his cause when his scuffle with fellow Slovenian Goran Dragic nearly cost the Lakers' Game 6 in the West Finals matchup against Phoenix, prompting Bryant to suggest he wanted to kill Vujacic. But those ill feelings all went away once Vujacic made two free throws to clinch Game 7 against Boston, a moment that caused Bryant and Vujacic to embrace each other. That moment also validated in Vujacic's mind why Jackson remained tough on him all season, and proof that he can prevail when given an opportunity. That includes assuming more time at point guard, which could spur success given that Vujacic plays more within the offense and is composed when he doesn't feel he has to jam a game's worth of production into limited minutes.
"Coach made me better throughout the year," Vujacic said. "Sometimes when you don't play, you get pulled out, whatever happens, it's that mental training that PJ does with all the players. I'm glad I kind of passed the test. He gave me that confidence in the most crucial game, not only when the game was on the line but the entire series, the season, he showed me confidence. He puts me in the game like that, that shows a lot."