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Q&A: Sasha Vujacic Excited to be back in the NBA and feeling better than ever

Over the summer, the New York Knicks signed well-traveled shooting guard Sasha Vujacic to a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum of $1.4 million, a low-cost, low-risk gamble by Phil Jackson. The 31-year old won two championships with Jackson’s Lakers in 2009 and 2010, was once engaged to professional tennis player Maria Sharapova and has been largely absent from the N.B.A. since 2011 — he had a 10-day contract with the Los Angeles Clippers in February 2014 — bouncing around Europe, playing for Reyer Venezia Mestre (Italy), Laboral Kutxa (Spain) and Istanbul Buyuksehir Belediyespor (Turkey), whose season concluded in June.

After averaging about 23 minutes per game in the Knicks’ first eight games with Arron Afflalo out with an injury, Vujacic’s minutes have dropped drastically as he has only played 36 minutes total in the previous eleven contests. Vujacic has settled into a bench role and he’s a known quantity at this stage of his career, having made his living as a reliable 3-point threat.

Double G Sports contributor Steve Simineri caught up with Vujacic to talk about getting a fresh start in the N.B.A. with the Knicks, where he is reunited with two familiar faces — Derek Fisher, a former teammate, and Jackson, his former coach. How he has changed from his early days with the Lakers, his experience playing overseas, mentoring rookie Kristaps Porzingis and expectations for this season.

Double G Sports: Obviously, you weren’t brought here over the summer to start and you have been coming off the bench since Aaron Afflalo returned. But how do you think you handled being pushed into the starting lineup after being away from the NBA for a few years and are you content with any role going forward?

Sasha Vujacic: I think we are growing as a team everyday and every game. You know injuries come along the way, I’m just happy to be a piece of the puzzle. So whatever he is asking me to do, I’ll do it and everybody has their own role on our team.

Double G Sports: You’re still a young guy at 31, but how much wiser do you feel now compared to when you broke into the league in 2004 and why do you feel that way?

Sasha Vujacic: You can’t compare, there’s is a reason they say young is stupid when you’re young. I was probably more impatient, quite different when I was younger in my 20s. I am very grateful that I had great people that I was with for a very long time, which counts a lot, and I’ve learned a lot being away from the NBA, it shows a different perspective. So I’m grateful for this opportunity and got to handle it in a more mature way.

Double G Sports: When you broke into the league I’m sure a guy like Derek Fisher is someone you looked up to and now he’s your coach. How is the relationship different with him as the coach now?

Sasha Vujacic: Well Derek was always from day one when he came to the Lakers and joined us, he was a leader. He had coaching within him and some people are just born with that. So for me it was natural to grab that and go along with him and the rest of my teammates. To have him as coach right now is not very different, the only difference is he can’t compete with us on the court, but he is still there with the spirit and he’s leading our boat. It’s a long season, there’s going to be a lot of ups and downs, but we got stay to concentrated and know where we’re going, and he knows where he’s taking us.

Double G Sports: After basically four years away from the NBA, you received a fresh start with a couple of old buddies here in Phil Jackson and Fisher. How enticing was it to join what Phil and Fisher and trying to build here in New York?

Sasha Vujacic: Well as soon as I heard about it I was very excited being with the people that you won before and then had the opportunity to win a couple of times and go to the top of the mountain, it’s a privilege. And now to be reunited its great, I’m honored and I want to do my best and best for the team in order to represent New York and the Knicks the wrong way.

Double G Sports: You signed with a team in Turkey at the start of the lockout in 2011, why’d you decide to head back overseas and looking back at that decision now, do you feel like it was the right choice?

Sasha Vujacic: Young and stupid. I was really young and impatient, I wanted to play. That year I got traded from the Lakers to the Nets and I wanted to play basketball. I love this game so much that to be away for it for indefinite time because we didn’t really know how long the lockout would be and just impatiently I went overseas. It was actually good for my growth and my maturity. Just a different opportunity so I have no regrets, it’s just a life story that one takes and I’m very happy to be back.

Double G Sports: During those years away from the NBA you bounced around Europe playing in Turkey, Italy and Spain. What can you say about those years abroad and how they changed you as a person on/off the court?

Sasha Vujacic: Well it expands your level of maturity I would say, you’re level of growing. It’s always great to see variety and I’m different than I was before. That’s where maturity comes in play and appreciation in a way, it’s still very different for being in the league seven years prior to that and playing at the highest level possible, competing for something very special and having that goal set every year, day in and day out, it’s just tough to kind of change it all of a sudden and that’s what Europe was. It was not the easiest thing, but I did the best I could and like I said, I probably needed it to come back the right way and I’m really happy the way I came back.

Double G Sports: How much different is the game overseas and what style of play do you prefer between the NBA and abroad?

Sasha Vujacic: Well for me, overseas game is not suited for me to be honest. It’s different, not everybody can play it, but that’s why I’m happy where I belong.

Double G Sports: Did winning two championships with the Lakers change you as a player and what can you say about the run that group had and being a part of it?

Sasha Vujacic: Incredible. To be fortunate enough, and good enough mentally, physically to be in a system, to be in an institution in a way that’s building something and going in the right direction was great and we lost our first finals, which was heartbreaking so you got to go through all the ups and downs, through the worst things possible to know how to appreciate when you come to the top. And when you come to the top you need to know how to handle it and sometimes you don’t know exactly how to handle it so your associated and amongst the people that been there before so its very important for every player that knows how to fit each system to understand what it means to extra pass, what means team basketball, and what means helping each other defensively and offensively side of the floor.

Double G Sports: In February of 2014, you signed a 10-day contract with the Clippers and played in two games with them. How fair or unfair of a shot was that and did that stint kind of rekindle your interest in returning to the NBA?

Sasha Vujacic: Well I was waiting for a very long time. I wanted to go to the right opportunity; I wanted to find the opportunity where I could contribute in a way and help the team. Clippers, they were the team that started building something at the time and I was interested, but obviously I didn’t fit their needs and there’s no sorry feelings about it. Everybody has their own vision, and their own way of succeeding of what they want to be, so I’m glad where I am today, I am actually very happy where I am today and being in this building of what we are trying to accomplish here and it’s very exciting

Double G Sports: It’s been said that you have kind of taken a mentorship role with rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis. Is that something you feel obligated to do as a veteran player?

Sasha Vujacic: Of course I do. I mean we got kind of similar stories. He left home when he was 14, I left home at 14. I was there for five years in Italy, he was in Spain. So you come along players in the path of life on your journey, and their journey to kind of connect and I kind of understand what he’s going through right now and what his rookie season means. So I am not the only one helping him, the entire team is and we are a group, we are family, a band of brothers and that’s why this is very special.

Double G Sports: Lastly, I know you work with a trainer every off-season and have learned to take care of your body. Do you feel 31?

Sasha Vujacic: To be honest, I feel like I’m in my mid 20’s in my body because I am a freak in a way and take a few weeks off and then I start working on my body and my basketball and everything. So mentally I’m in my 30’s, which everybody says that 30’s are the best for the guards you know the most mature and readier you can be and I’m there, but in my body I feel very excited where I’m at and I’m in my mid 20’s and hopefully it stays like that just to be healthy and continue growing.

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