How Dejan Vasiljevic went from role player to rookie superstar

Stuck as a spot up shooter during his college career, Vasiljevic has blossomed into an all-around star with the Sydney Kings.

Dejan Vasiljevic is a force of constant motion on the court. Running off a pick, hustling on defence, making a herky-jerky move to get to the basket — no matter what’s needed, he always seems to be there to get it done.

Where does the Sydney Kings rookie get all of that energy from? “I always try to take a nap before the game and eat Subway,” Vasiljevic told The Pick and Roll. “That’s my go-to before the game.”

Maybe not be the routine that you would expect from a top-level athlete, then. Still, whatever Vasiljevic is doing certainly seems to be working. After four years of NCAA hoops with the University of Miami, Vasiljevic entered the NBL as part of a stacked rookie class headlined by Next Star Josh Giddey and a swathe of college returnees. From out of that field he has emerged as one of the frontrunners to win Rookie of the Year, shouldering a heavy load for the injury-hit Kings and helping to keep them in finals contention.

It has been a rapid ascent for Vasiljevic through the first third of the season. When seven writers from The Pick and Roll team were asked to make their preseason award predictions, only one nominated Vasiljevic for Rookie of the Year. Much like his fellow standout rookies, though, he has transcended that first-year discussion to become one of the more versatile scorers in the NBL full stop.

That didn’t seem particularly likely after a college career where he was, on the surface at least, one of the most one-dimensional players in the country. That’s not to say he wasn’t an effective player— he made at least 50 threes in each of his four seasons and led the Miami Hurricanes in made triples in three of them. All of that left him sitting second in school history with 272 made threes at a 36.7% clip, per Sports Reference.

The problem was, that was the only thing he was asked to do. Playing alongside future NBA draftees Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker, as well as a handful of accomplished NCAA scorers, Vasiljevic was relegated to the role of spot up shooter. During those four seasons, he ranked fifth, sixth, fourth and second on the Hurricanes in shots per game, all while taking a whopping 69.8% of his total shots from behind the arc, per Sports Reference.

According to Vasiljevic himself, that should have never been the case. “No disrespect to my college coaches, but I think I was held back a little bit in that sense, just being stuck in the corner and known as a shooter,” he said.

Just 20 games into his professional career, Vasiljevic is showing how much more he can do. He’s pouring in 16.1 points per game, more than he ever scored for Miami, while flaunting a much more diverse skillset. “When Fordey [coach Adam Forde] has given me more of a chance to be myself and showcase what I can do, I’m more than just a shooter,” Vasiljevic said. “I’m grateful that I made this decision to come to Sydney because it’s actually showcasing who I really am.”

The three-point shot is still a weapon, and still his most dangerous one at that; his 49 made triples sit him fifth in the league, and he’s hitting a scorching 42.6% of his attempts from deep, per NBL stats. What he has been able to do under Forde, though, is use the threat of that shot to unlock other areas of his game. He has had almost as many plays in the pick and roll (59) as he has spotting up to shoot (70), and he sits fourth in the league for scoring efficiency as the pick and roll ball handler (min. 50 possessions), per Jordan McCallum. He is also one of 14 players with at least 25 isolation possessions, and sitting ahead of the likes of Casper Ware and Keifer Sykes in efficiency at that volume.

Those are skills that he has always had, including footwork that he attributes to a childhood spent practicing Serbian dancing and a killer instinct refined at many international junior tournaments. It was the decision to sign with the Kings that put them in the spotlight, and after offseason conversations with former coach Will Weaver and his then-assistant Forde, that was an easy choice. “I’ve known Fordey for a very long time now, so he kind of led the recruiting process for me,” Vasiljevic said. “The trust they had in me, and kind of a plan they had in what they wanted me to do when I came in… I just felt like this was the right fit for me.”

That plan, according to Vasiljevic, was quite different to what has eventuated this season. Once Weaver left for the NBA’s Houston Rockets, Vasiljevic and Forde sat down to solidify the rookie’s role on a roster featuring a Boomers big, an NBA veteran, an All-NBL First Team guard and a deep rotation. “That would have been coming off the bench and being that sixth man for the team,” Vasiljevic said.

That was before the injuries started to mount. Xavier Cooks was set to take over the team following Andrew Bogut’s retirement, but a Lisfranc injury has kept him sidelined for the entire season to date. Jarrell Martin came into the league on a minutes restriction that has never really been lifted, and he has missed six games to boot. Angus Glover was set for a breakout season but played just two games before suffering an ACL injury. Didi Louzada and Daniel Kickert have missed a combined 13 games through injury, robbing the Kings of their bench depth. Basically, they have been hit harder than any other team in the league.

All of these setbacks have left gaping holes in Sydney’s lineup at times throughout the season, and Vasiljevic has largely been the one asked to fill them. “We were hit by injuries, [Forde] put me into the starting role and just gave me a bigger load and bigger role, and I’ve kind of held it down,” Vasiljevic said. “I think my role is there to stay where I’m that third guy after Jarrell and Casper.”

Those three have certainly been effective for the Kings, combining for 52.7 points per game and forming the third-highest scoring trio in the league. Sydney’s “big three” was meant to be Ware, Martin and Cooks, and when the latter went down injured injured it was assumed that the Kings would have to fill his role by committee. That has been true to some degree —Craig Moller and Jordan Hunter have done plenty of the dirty work in the frontcourt— but offensively, it has been Vasiljevic shouldering most of the load.

At the other end of the floor, he has been making the necessary strides under the close scrutiny of his coach. “Defensively I’ve always had to step up in that role, and Fordey’s challenged me at times — even during games, at half time, he’ll challenge me to step up,” Vasiljevic said. “I think that’s the reason I’ve been playing and averaging 30 minutes a game, because I’ve started to defend my own man.” Those efforts have been paying off, with Sydney’s defensive rating marginally better when Vasiljevic is on the court, per Spatial Jam.

All of these improvements stemmed from an offseason that was extended indefinitely as the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic materialised. Vasiljevic found himself stuck in the eye of the storm in the United States and stuck in lockdown, but he managed to find the positives. “[I was] lucky enough I have my own trainer and a facility where I can work out, so I spent most of my days there,” he said.

Once he finally landed in Sydney, it was workouts every day until the season eventually tipped off. As well as learning from his new coaches, he has leaned on the team’s many veterans for advice. He cites Daniel Kickert and Brad Newley as being helpful, but it’s his backcourt running mates that have had the biggest impact. “Casper and Shaun Bruce, obviously they’re the veteran guys and they’ve been there before,” Vasiljevic said. “I’m just very grateful for them and how they’ve helped me out… they’ve always given me advice and they trust me.”

All of this has combined to create an outstanding rookie season for DJ. Despite all of Vasiljevic’s success, his team’s fate is still hanging in the balance. A 10-10 record currently has the Kings sitting just barely inside the top four, but there is plenty of reason for optimism with hope that Cooks will return this season. “Once we’re at full strength, once we get a couple of games under our belt and we’ve all played together, I think we can be a top two, top three team for sure,” Vasiljevic said.

It’s tough to say when that might happen, but the rookie looks set to keep them afloat for as long as it takes.