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How 'DJ' Vasiljevic got his groove back
The Kings sharpshooter has shaken off a long-term injury to become an important piece in the Sydney Kings' title run.
Credit: May Bailey Photography
Taking each game as it comes and treating every opponent the same are two of the great athlete clichés, but Sydney Kings guard Dejan ‘DJ’ Vasiljevic admits to having a bit of extra motivation any time he comes up against semi-final opponents, Illawarra Hawks.
“I’d love to play for the Boomers, so I always want to play Illawarra with [Brian Goorjian] being their coach,” he tells The Pick and Roll. “Every time we play Goorj, I’m like ‘Hey, I’m free’ [for national selection].” Similarly, a matchup with potential grand final opponents Melbourne United is an opportunity for the ever-competitive Vasiljevic to prove himself against Chris Goulding, who he views as a rival for a shooting guard spot in future Boomers squads.
When the 2021/22 NBL season tipped off, however, Vasiljevic had more modest and immediate goals in mind; he simply wanted to get back on court and feel physically comfortable again. He sustained a ruptured Achilles in his impressive rookie season and faced an extensive, months-long rehabilitation process.
“Once I was able to walk and get back on the bike, that was the easy part,” he recalls. “The hardest part was not being able to walk for two months, being on crutches, not being able to do things for myself; that was the most mentally challenging.”
After initially playing on a minutes restriction, he began to feel fully himself again in an away game against the Brisbane Bullets, where he poured in 21 points and went 5 from 10 on 3-point shots. In the return fixture, at home, he had 23 points and his season was up and running.
The Kings finished that first game against Brisbane with a 3-6 record and were reeling from injuries and COVID-19 disruptions. They had even endured a 42-point loss against Melbourne United in a game where Vasiljevic made his return from injury in a bench cameo.
But the 25 year old said spirits remained high in camp during that early slump. “It was just a ‘next man up’ [mentality]. We tried to avoid all the excuses like ‘Jaylen [Adams] is injured, DJ is on minutes restrictions, Jarrell is injured too’. That [injury toll] caught up with us a little bit, but when we got healthy we went on that massive winning streak. We lose sometimes, but you can really see what we’re capable of when everyone’s healthy.”
Going into game 2 of the semi-final series against the Illawarra Hawks, Vasiljevic had scored 12.42 points per game, connecting from deep at a healthy 37.1%. Before the season, he sat down with head coach Chase Buford and assistant coach Fleur McIntyre to refine his shot selection. Per the Spatial Jam Shot Machine, this season he took 55% of his shots from three-point range and 25% at the rim, largely avoiding the mid-range. He says Buford has steered him towards these efficient shots.
“A lot of times, people will run me off the [three-point] line, but Chase isn’t a big fan of the two-pointers, though if I’m wide open, he’s ok with it. It’s about getting to the rim and finishing, and as a three-point specialist, making those shots when I’m open.”
An animated, energetic presence on court, Vasiljevic moves well off the ball, and has particularly excelled as a spot-up shooter (20.5% of his plays are this play type, with 1.1 points per play, per Jordan McCallum).
Buford, the son of legendary San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C Buford, and the former head coach of Milwaukee Bucks affiliate Wisconsin Herd, has introduced a culture that sits well with Vasiljevic. “He’s brought an NBA-type environment, which I really like,” he says. “The way he runs practice, and the way prepare for finals, it’s all what they do in the NBA. It’s a cool and different perspective.”
Vasiljevic’s outside shooting and ability to get the rim were features of the team’s 13-game winning streak, with his best performance coming in a gripping 107-102 overtime win against the Hawks, where he tallied 33 points and went 6 from 10 from deep.
“As a shooter, when you got rolling it’s hard to contain yourself out there,” he says of that game. “It’s pretty cool; you go through a phase where it’s unreal, and you can’t be stopped.”
He makes the point, however, that having a richly talented and multi-faceted offence around him enables such individual displays.
“Playing with X [Xavier Cooks], he sets with great screens, and his man doesn’t know if he’s there for a pocket pass or he’s going to shoot it, Jarell [Martin] is the same way; he can pick and roll or pop, and then Jaylen [Adams] just attracts so much attention. You’ve just got to get to your spot where he can see you, and he’ll find you - it makes life so much easier.”
Even on nights when the shots aren’t dropping, Vasiljevic will have no hesitation hoisting a shot from well beyond the arc and staying aggressive through a cold streak. He credits this confidence to his father, Todor, who showed him footage of Croatian great Dražen Petrović’s pure shooting and taught him that analysing missed shots is for after the game, not in the moment.
The competitor in Vasiljevic means he’ll switch off his usual friendliness with Hawks defensive ace Antonius Cleveland for the semi-final series. Similarly, he’s normally keen for news on NBA interest from his agent, but has asked him to temporarily hold off on the updates as the Kings chase their first ring since 2005.
On a day off from basketball, Vasiljevic can be found spending time with family or playing Call of Duty with friends. He says it’s a good way to unwind and stay in touch with mates from his Melbourne youth, but the competitor in him soon becomes apparent: “I’m a big Warzone guy, and I’m pretty good at it too!” he laughs.
On or off the court, DJ doesn’t stop competing. The Sydney Kings are making their championship run, and you know he’s ready.