The New York Knicks’ season is nearly upon us, and with the new year comes new dilemmas for head coach Derek Fisher. After signing Arron Afflalo this past summer to a two-year, $16 million deal, most onlookers expected the former UCLA Bruin to slot right into the New York lineup as the starting shooting guard.
Having been hindered by a reoccurring hamstring injury, however, the Knicks will be forced to commence the season with a different player in Afflalo’s place.
In the lead-up to the Knicks’ opener against the Milwaukee Bucks, Fisher confirmed that his former teammate, Sasha Vujacic, would be starting at the shooting guard slot.
This announcement comes as little surprise.
Vujacic spent much of the preseason filling in for the oft injured Afflalo, tallying mixed reviews among the Knicks’ support. His trademark aggressiveness evidently hasn’t waned during his extended NBA hiatus, finishing in the Top 5 in field goals attempted among Knicks players this preseason.
The 8.4 points per game he averaged should improve as he gains regular NBA minutes. The 2.2 assists and 4.2 rebounds per contest he registered are, at the very least, adequate contributions. In addition, his time under Phil Jackson in Los Angeles makes him a ready-made cog for the Zen Master’s triangle machine.
Fisher’s reasoning for starting the Slovenian sharp shooter however, appears to to transcend stats and systematic importance.
Over the course of his career, Sasha Vujacic has certainly annoyed his fair share of opponents. Anyone who watched the epic Lakers-Suns playoff showdown of 2010 will remember his clash with fellow Slovenian Goran Dragic.
After partaking in a series of skirmishes with his compatriot, Vujacic cemented himself as one of the premier nuisances in the NBA. Having been dubbed an irritant by then TNT commentator Doug Collins, Vujacic embraced his controversial role, reviled by rival fans and adored by his home support.
This season, he should provide much of the same for the Knicks. While he lacks the athleticism to be a truly effective defender, Vujacic’s heart, scrappiness and determination will make him a formidable matchup for opposing guards.
Even if his defensive contributions aren’t always tallied on the score sheet, the intangibles he provides—such as pure, unadulterated irksomeness—are always advantageous if utilized correctly.
Oct 9, 2015; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards guardJohn Wall
(2) battles for the ball with New York Knicks guardJose Calderon
(3) and Knicks guard Sasha Vujacic (18) in the first quarter at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
While Vujacic is certainly capable of contributing positively to this Knicks team, there have been a slew of question marks over his inclusion in the lineup. Having shot a mediocre .405 percent from the field this preseason, it appears he has yet to tone down the oft sporadic offensive arsenal he displayed in Los Angeles. His penchant for struggling defensively against athletic guards is also a cause for concern, and at age 31, he’s not getting any younger.
With dynamic guards Jerian Grant and Langston Galloway waiting in the wings, Vujacic’s inclusion in the lineup is likely nothing more than a stop gap solution. Even if Afflalo fails to return healthy in the imminent future, the two aforementioned talents are primed to break into the main backcourt rotation at some point or another.
In the meantime, it looks like Derek Fisher feels comfortable trusting the shooting guard reins in the hands of the experienced, occasionally maddening Slovenian. It’s up to Vujacic to pick up where he left off and win over the hearts of the notoriously finicky Madison Square Garden faithful.
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