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Nets' Vujacic has seen his game blossom in the Garden State

January 14, 2011|Mike Bresnahan

This is the way Sasha Vujacic envisioned the evolution of his game.

He has become a dependable player for the New Jersey Nets since the Lakers traded him last month with their first-round selection in the June draft for seldom-used forward Joe Smith.

The trade saved the Lakers almost $8 million in salary and luxury-tax considerations, and it reinvigorated Vujacic, who was in the last season of a three-year, $15-million contract. He is the Nets' fourth-leading scorer, averaging 11.3 points and 27.3 minutes in 12 games after averaging 1.8 points and 4.9 minutes in 11 games with the Lakers this season.

On Friday the Lakers play the Nets at Staples Center in Vujacic's first game here since the trade.

The Nets (10-28) are barely ahead of Cleveland for last place in the Eastern Conference, but Vujacic, 26, has already made a positive impact.

He grabbed a loose ball and hit a short floater with five seconds left for the go-ahead basket in a victory over Chicago last week. Before that, he had 22 points against Minnesota and, more recently, 19 against Phoenix in an overtime loss Wednesday.

"First and foremost I had seven great years with the Lakers and in L.A., so obviously I learned a lot," he said Thursday.

"It was time for a change from a professional point of view. I just needed a new perspective, new challenges. New Jersey was perfect for that. ...

"The expectations are high and I'm happy to be part of that. Right now we're in a little bit of a struggle ... but everybody has welcomed me in an incredible way."

Vujacic said the Nets' rebuilding efforts were similar to the Lakers' turnaround attempt earlier in his career. Vujacic was drafted in 2004, a few weeks before the Lakers traded Shaquille O'Neal.

"We're trying to play better, not for two or three quarters, but for four quarters," he said. "Same thing for the Lakers when we were rebuilding."

Vujacic's absence has affected the Lakers. Coach Phil Jackson acknowledged recently that the team missed Vujacic's high-energy presence in practice.

"Yes, we do," Jackson said. "Sasha's always going to come and play. He likes to play and he plays hard."

Coming back soon

Lakers backup center Theo Ratliff participated in conditioning drills Thursday with the team's reserves and was expected to return to practice after the two-game trip to Dallas and Denver next week.

Ratliff hasn't gone through a full practice since having cartilage removed from his left knee Nov. 17.

"It's good to be able to get out on the floor, run and sprint again," he said.

Ratliff, 37, is averaging 0.3 points and 1.6 rebounds in 8.4 minutes a game.

Professor Jackson

With Friday's game marking the halfway point of the Lakers' regular season, it was time for Jackson to assign midterm grades.

He gave the Lakers a B because the season has included a four-game losing streak (a first since April 2007) and a three-game losing streak.

"I'd like to see us put a string of games together," Jackson said. "There's going to be bad games, games that are close and tight or whatever, but you find ways to win, and those are the kind of things that send you over the top in the season."

The Lakers are 29-11, two victories behind their 40-game record a season ago.

Who's No. 1?

Houston center Yao Ming is out for the season, but Andrew Bynum is not automatically the Western Conference's starting center in next month's All-Star game despite being second to Yao in fan voting.

The NBA does not select the next-highest finisher as a replacement for an injured All-Star starter.

There's a chance Commissioner David Stern will hand-pick a replacement for Yao after the voting officially ends, but more likely the West coaches will select a few centers as reserve players. Then the coach of the West team will decide who starts.

As of Thursday, Yao had almost 929,000 votes, Bynum had about 661,000 and Denver's Nene had a little more than 389,000.

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

twitter.com/Mike_Bresnahan

Times correspondent Mark Medina contributed to this report.

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