Sasha Vujacic opens camp on hot streak
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The last two shots he attempted in the last game of last season -- two free throws with 11.7 seconds left and the outcome of Game 7 against the Boston Celtics hanging in the balance -- found nothing but net.
Now, more than three months later, most of the first shots Sasha Vujacic has put up through the first three days of Lakers training camp are doing the same.
"Sasha was like the hero today. Sasha made all his shots," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said about Vujacic. With Kobe Bryant out while recovering from right knee surgery, Vujacic continued to play with the first-team unit of Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest and Pau Gasol. The team ended practice with organized eight-minute scrimmages with officials and scoreboard on and everything, and Vujacic's team won 29-10 in the one session that was open for the media.
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The hot streak couldn't come at a better time for Vujacic, 26, as he enters this season at a crossroads for his seven-year career.
"I did what I was supposed to do," Vujacic said. "I had a long summer of working hard and now it's time to build on it."
It's a contract season for the 6-foot-7, 205-pound guard. For some impending free agents, such as Denver's Carmelo Anthony, that means other teams are talking about them as a potential asset. But when Vujacic is mentioned in potential trades, it's usually for his $5.5 million deal that would come off the books at the end of the season for whatever team that might acquire him.
There was speculation this summer when Los Angeles re-signed Shannon Brown to delve even deeper into the luxury tax that Vujacic's contract would be dumped before the season began to save money, but No. 18 is still at the Lakers practice facility in a sweat-soaked jersey as the team starts its run at title No. 17.
"I want to play, there's no secret about it," Vujacic said. "There's a reason why I'm here. They drafted me and played me here in the past, I've been here seven years."
The last couple of those years have been trying for the Slovenia native.
In fact, outside of those famous free throws, he would probably rather forget about the past two seasons completely. Last season, he averaged a career-low 2.8 points per game and missed 15 games because of injuries to his right shoulder and left ankle. The season before that he was on the team that won the championship against Orlando, but didn't feel like he was truly a part of it as he went scoreless in the five-game Finals series.
"It's so big for me now to stay away from those injuries and work hard on it and be able to practice," Vujacic said. "What will happen? We'll see. We have a lot of guards, a lot of guys, but everybody is different. Everybody can bring different things to the table."
With Bryant, Brown, Derek Fisher and free-agent signee Steve Blake on the roster, it would appear that Vujacic would fall fifth in the five-guard depth chart.
But even with all that's riding on this season for him personally, when he talks about his situation it sounds as though he has truly bought into Jackson's team-oriented philosophy.
"What I'm looking forward to is when we play together we execute and we play the right way and that's when we are the best," Vujacic said. "I think that's also the best fit for me, when we know what we're doing out there."
There is one particular aspect of the game in which he can't help but get a little greedy, however. He wants to be in there with the game on the line.
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"I think Phil and his coaching staff, they know that," Vujacic said. "I think that everybody in our organization knows what kind of player I am and I live for the last minutes of the game. ... I've never had a lack of confidence. Even when you miss 10 shots in a row, you got to believe that what you're doing is the right thing. If you're working hard, it's going to come out OK."
That's not just Vujacic acting a little too big for his britches, either. Bryant has gone on record saying that if it's not him or Fisher taking the final shot, the next guy he wants with the ball in his hands is Vujacic.
Still, despite Bryant's faith in him, Vujacic still takes more than his fair share of ribbing from his teammates. Luke Walton joked during the Lakers' media day when showing off the team's new form-fitting jerseys that Vujacic had already requested for his in a smaller size. After Tuesday's practice, Ron Artest imitated how Vujacic slicked back his eyebrows before he nailed those clutch free throws in the NBA Finals. "That was classic, that was classic," Artest said. "I can't believe he don't have a commercial for like, I don't know, a hair product maybe."
Artest might be laughing, but it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility to see Vujacic in a Nike tennis commercial with his girlfriend, Maria Sharapova.
Who would be laughing then?
They Said It
"It's too expensive. Every time I turn around they got cars and diamonds. ... I just can't compete." -- Ron Artest on why he did not buy a present for Odom and his wife Khloe Kardashian. The couple celebrated their one-year anniversary Monday.
Andrew Bynum worked up a full sweat on the exercise bike and got some light shooting in with assistant coach Craig Hodges on a side basket during the team's organized scrimmage on the main basket. Jackson said that the team plans for Bynum to accompany it when it leaves for its eight-day Europe Live trip through London and Barcelona on Thursday.
Bryant practiced for the first time since the start of training camp on Monday, but took Tuesday off, icing both of his knees as he watched from the sidelines.
"He looked good," Jackson said. "He had no significant problem with it. A little swelling [in his knee], obviously, but I think that's it."
Luke Walton, who missed 53 games last season because of back trouble, has yet to miss a practice this offseason as he continues to try to strengthen his back.
"Luke's played well," Jackson said. "He went through two practices [Monday]. I was still a little hesitant about it, but he wanted to try it out."
Ratliff's Finals Memories
Ratliff started that season with the Sixers when the team raced off to a 10-0 start, but ended up breaking his wrist and being traded to Atlanta for Dikembe Mutombo.
"That was a sad time during that moment, but at the same time, things happen and things happen for a reason, and I went on to have many more blessings after that," said Ratliff, who signed with the Lakers in the offseason to fill the backup center role vacated by D.J. Mbenga.
Ratliff said that the 2001 NBA Finals did not come immediately to his mind when he signed with L.A. for what will be his 16th season in the league, but it didn't last very long before somebody reminded him of what might have been.
"Kobe brought it up," Ratliff shared. "He said he was glad I wasn't with the Sixers at that time."
They Said It, Part II
"There is no question that is so great to have some rookies this year. We have so many wonderful activities planned for them -- indoor, outdoor activities. It's going to be so much fun." -- Derek Fisher on the excitement of the veterans on the team to have first-year players Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter on the team. The Lakers haven't had a rookie on the roster since Sun Yue during the 2008-09 season.
This and That
Artest grew up just three blocks from Ebanks in Queens, New York and says that the surroundings should show in the rookie's game: "We're from the same area, [so] he should have some feistiness in him." ... Ratliff, who praised the role of mineral supplements in extending his career at his introductory news conference in July, said that Bynum has no need for them: "He's 22. I thought he was older than that, but he just told me he's 22. So he won't have no problems. He's just a young cat, he'll be good." ... Lakers fans looking to get the first glimpse of the Las Vegas favorites headed into the season can tune into NBA TV on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at 4:30 p.m. PT to see Miami play the Detroit Pistons in the Heat's preseason debut.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.