Sasha Vujacic: Ready for Primetime

Most teenagers spend their time hanging out with friends in the park, chatting on the phone, going to movies and making sure they are home before their 11 o’clock curfew.

Fourth year Lakers guard Aleksander “Sasha” Vujacic did all of those things too, but also managed to become a star for Snaidero Udine of Italy’s top professional league—all at the tender age of 16. Then again, no one should be surprised by Vujacic’s maturity as the Slovenian-born player has been preparing for his moment in the spotlight for as long as he can remember.

After being selected with the twenty-seventh pick in the 2004 NBA Draft, Vujacic—once compared to legend “Pistol” Pete Maravich by Lakers brass—came to L.A. with a mountain of promise towering over him and a well-deserved reputation for his dead-eye shooting and pesky defense. With three years of NBA experience under his belt, Vujacic has set out to show his fans and coaches that he is ready to reach his peak.

JOURNEY TO THE NBA:
Like so many foreign basketball players who have infused the NBA with their unique style of play, Vujacic also came to the U.S. to follow a lifelong dream.

“For me, personally, I always wanted to be in the NBA. I always wanted to play at the best level possible and everyone knows that the NBA is in on top of everything,” said Vujacic. “I like it here more now because I’ve gotten used to it and I think I have my career here in the NBA, hopefully with the Lakers.”

Serbian natives Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic provided a helping hand as Vujacic navigated his way through L.A.’s often-intimidating jungle of cars, money and temptation.
“They were the first guys that came from my territory over there,” said Vujacic. “Vlade was here my rookie year and he gave me a big hand with everything off the court and on the court. It’s nice to hear from somebody that’s been here for a long time to be able to help you.”

Vujacic also had the support of his family, a point he hammers home when he says, “Having your family here is a big advantage. If I wouldn’t have had them here my rookie year, it would have been really hard for me. Now it’s my fourth year and I’ve learned how to deal with those kinds of problems myself.”

Adjusting to the more physical U.S. style of play from the less physical European game similarly proved troublesome for Vujacic—a weakness that even the guard himself points to as one of the reasons he was not able to guard many of the bigger, stronger NBA players during his rookie season.

“The big difference is the quickness and the physical basketball,” said Vujacic. “Through time—it’s my fourth year right now—I learned, gained some muscle and I really improved on defense.”

A DIFFICULT FIRST FEW YEARS:
As a natural goal-setter, his first few years with the Lakers were trying at times. Settling into an unfamiliar country and one of its most intimidating cities was difficult enough, but Vujacic also struggled at times to find his place within his new basketball family, often enduring extended stays on the Lakes bench, hoping Coach Jackson would call his name. Through it all, Vujacic kept his head up high and refused to let his eyes waver from his end goal.

“To be honest, I had a really tough rookie year. I didn’t play at all and it was kind of hard for me,” said Vujacic. “I saw the bad side of L.A. Everything is kind of narrow for you and you don’t want to do anything. After all, I came here to play basketball without complications so I was kind of disappointed. The second year, I started to play, the third year was ups-and-downs and the fourth year, I’m going in with big goals…”

The guard’s journey toward NBA success has certainly not been in vain as Vujacic finally displayed glimpses of his enormous potential last season, encapsulated by his scintillating performance to break up the Dallas Maverick’s 13-game win streak last January.

“…Last year’s game versus Dallas when I had that three-point shock, just to see the joy of STAPLES Center, it kind of exploded,” said Vujacic. “I want to have moments like that, not just a few or a handful, but a lot to remember. I’m looking forward to performing as I did before in the future and I just can’t wait for that last five minutes of the game.”

THIS SUMMER AND BEYOND:
Following his exit meeting last May with Jackson, Vujacic spent the summer working harder than he ever has before to prove to Lakers coaches and teammates that he was ready to play a more prominent role with the team this season.

“We talked at my exit meeting. He told me what he wanted me to improve on…I worked on everything, but the one thing I was working on more than before was taking the ball to the hoop,” said Vujacic. “I started attacking more, being more aggressive on the offensive end and trying to be very consistent with my shot. Obviously, the defense, it’s my first thing and if I play good defense, I’ll be on the court more.”

“I believe I did everything he asked me for,” said Vujacic.

Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak seems to agree, saying, “He’s improved during the summer. We count on him to make open shots. We count on him to bring energy to the court and a defensive feistiness. He’s gotten lot stronger and his body has changed so we’re hopeful this will be a breakout year for him.”

With the drafting of point guard Javaris Crittenton, the return of Derek Fisher and the majority of minutes at shooting guard remaining steadfast in the hands of Kobe Bryant, Vujacic hopes he can carve his own niche within the Lakers rotation this year.

“It doesn’t matter to me—starting or coming off the bench—my goal is to perform at the highest level possible,” said Vujacic.

However, Vujacic’s sights are hardly set on individual accomplishments alone as he wants more than anything, for the Lakers to compete for an NBA title.

“I’m ready to give everything I’ve got to be one part of the team that’s going to eventually one day probably win the championship,” said Vujacic.

FINALLY AT PEACE:
While Vujacic can no longer relax by sipping on a cool drink in the piazza (he has taken a liking to Starbucks though), he has finally found refuge in wearing his purple and gold jersey.

“We really have a good team. With all that was going on through training camp and the summer, we have a great group of guys that want to play together,” said Vujacic. “We want to hang out together on and off the court. You can see that on the floor—we cover for each other. We probably have to improve a little more on defense, but I think we’re having fun.”

Vujacic’s enthusiastic assessment extends far beyond the Lakers though as the guard has racked up pearls of wisdom from all over the world. Of the many lessons he has learned in transitioning from Slovenian to Italian to his current NBA player status, he has taken one very important keynote away:

“If you perform the way you’re supposed to perform, if you do your best on the court, the fans will know how to appreciate it,” said Vujacic. Wherever you go, you’re recognized for hustling or playing with heart and representing the uniform the way it’s supposed to be represented.”

Although the guard embarked on his NBA dream largely by himself, he’s not alone anymore as he has a legion of Lakers supporters rooting for his #18 jersey to succeed every time he steps onto the court.

Vujacic says, “Whenever I come to the game and I see someone is there for me or when someone says my name, it gives me the extra motivation that nobody can take away.”

If his renewed optimism and improved play is not evidence enough that he has undergone considerable personal growth, Vujacic—ever the entertainer—has even come around to one of L.A.’s most fabled staples: movies.

“Being in L.A., it’s hard not to go to movie theatres. Wherever there’s a movie or something, I have to go see it,” said Vujacic. “I’m really starting to appreciate that lifestyle, to appreciate a good movie.”

Although his game is still in the editing stages, with Kobe Bryant running the show, Phil Jackson directing the team and a capable supporting cast, Vujacic himself may very well wind up as one of the starring attractions for the Lakers this season.