The current iteration of Sasha Vujacic is actually a very interesting player. There's nothing particularly remarkable about him. He's athletically outclassed in almost every possible matchup, even against backups. He doesn't have any standout offensive skills outside of his shooting ability. He's not particularly strong, he doesn't have a great handle, and his good defensive fundamentals are outweighed by his aforementioned athletic...vulnerabilities. But as we've seen this year, he can still be a net positive when placed in the correct role. With the above in mind, how is that possible?
Let’s start by looking backwards; last season was pretty much a disaster for Sasha, which colored the opinions of many fans. He was thrust into a pretty big role after spending a couple of seasons overseas, and he clearly struggled to assert himself and get going offensively. His shot wasn't falling until the second half of the season, and even though he does a lot of things that never show up on the stat sheet, he still needs to hit shots to be an actual productive player. Even when he missed 38 shots in a row (by my unofficial count), however, you could see flashes of inspirational team basketball whenever Vujacic played over Arron Afflalo. While Afflalo is a better player than Vujacic, they're basically polar opposites when it comes to the manner in which they apply their skillsets.
Why is that? Well, Vujacic's value as a player stems from the subtleties of NBA basketball. The term "basketball IQ" is often used as a cliche to describe players that have an impact beyond the box score. Basketball IQ, in this case, is the ONLY thing that makes Vujacic a productive role player, despite the fact that he is also a completely unremarkable individual player.
When Vujacic is on the floor, the offense as a whole flows better. This is impossible to quantify, but if you paid close attention last season, the Knicks played much better team ball offensively when Vujacic was on the floor over Afflalo. The numbers from last season are irrelevant; as I mentioned earlier, he still needs to hit shots in order to be productive, and for most of the season, he was an unmitigated disaster. Through the quarter mark of this season, however, Sasha has been mostly hitting his shots; as a result, the numbers actually show his impact. He has a net rating of +2.4 — not only is that the highest on the team among players with over 50 minutes played, it is the only net rating on the right side of zero.
Most of his offensive impact comes from stuff like ball movement, player movement, and quick decisions. These are things all NBA players should do, but many do not. The ball rarely sticks with Vujacic (with the exception of the occasional boneheaded heat check), which maximizes the 24 second shot clock on a macro scale and keeps a defense from resetting. The idea behind heavy player and ball movement is opening up small creases in the defense -- smart players will quickly attack those creases, forcing help from other defenders, which in turn creates even bigger creases. Attack those bigger creases, and now you’ve generated an open 3 (you can also warp the defense by having strong isolation players like Carmelo, but that's a post for another day).
Making quick decisions to attack marginal defensive vulnerabilities are how you get plays like this, where Sasha briskily attacks a theoretical mismatch and gets into the paint to create a great look for Porzingis.
Take too long to make this move, and Casspi regains his balance and positioning. Casspi's balance was actually fine on this play, but his positioning was not; he's too high up, and he's a bit off center, which Vujacic exploits. If Sasha had waited another half second, Casspi probably would have reset; because of Vujacic's lack of athleticism, he's not really going to beat any set defender 1v1 off the dribble (except maybe Al Jefferson). In other words, if Vujacic hadn't attacked right away, this play probably doesn't happen.
The opposite end of this spectrum was (is, probably) Jerian Grant. Grant is an athletic freak, but had no feel for defensive vulnerabilities and too often made slow decisions when the ball found him during an offensive possession. When Grant stood with the ball for a half second to determine where and when he would make his move, those creases I mentioned earlier disappeared; when those creases disappear, you've now spent 12 of your 24 seconds on an offensive possession essentially doing nothing. Basically, taking too long to make a decision can derail an entire offensive possession in an instant. Nate Duncan calls that a "record scratch", and it's an apt description; taking too long ruins (scratches) the offensive flow (the music).
As I'm sure some of you will point out, that play was also created because of DeMarcus Cousins' mind-numbingly bad defense on Porzingis — that was like, Bargnani-level defensive awareness. But it's important to remember that offensive pressure is what causes defensive breakdowns like this; if Vujacic had not penetrated into the paint, DMC doesn't sag off KP to watch Sasha run in a circle, and this shot doesn't happen.
None of this is groundbreaking, but avoiding record scratches allows Vujacic to maximize his extremely limited skillset. And that's something you see from the best glue guys across the league -- Kuzminskas is also pretty good at this. Euro guys in general are good at maintaining an offensive flow. You can see another perfect example here.
Sasha beats the initial closeout easily (quickly attacks the front foot, textbook) and draws the attention of the Kings defense in the process. The distracted defenders allow Kuz to make an unbelievably effective cut into space, which gives Sasha an outlet for the pass and further occupies the defense. Sasha keeps moving after the pass, finds an opening behind the arc, pump fakes his defender into oblivion, and hits the tough pull up 3 to salvage the possesion. This is why his shots need to fall! This is a great team possession, but it wouldn't have made a difference if the rock doesn't go through the hoop.
Here's another one (this is all from Sasha's short stint on Sunday, by the way -- you can find stuff like this in almost every game he plays). Nothing remarkable to overanalyze here -- just watch Sasha fill space and make quick, smart decisions with and without the ball. Fantastic offensive sequence, with every player making good, quick decisions while moving the ball.
That's why Sasha Vujacic makes an offense flow better than the recently departed Arron Afflalo, who literally does none of those things.
The defensive end is where Sasha's IQ truly shines, though. Again, his athletic limitations make it basically impossible for him to play consistently strong man-to-man defense (or consistently strong defense in general), but his defensive IQ shows the true value of having smart defenders on the court.
Defensive IQ is arguably the most important part of playing NBA defense. Across the league, there's tons of guys with immeasurable defensive potential who just aren't good at defense (the Russell Westbrooks and Andre Drummonds). That's because defensive positioning and decision making is so difficult to digest and implement, especially in the age of small ball and stretch 4's. Vujacic's defensive value is ALL in his IQ.
His defensive rating is best on the team, and the only one under 100 (96.2). That number has a ton of noise, but this play shows how Vujacic manages to be a net positive on defense despite being completely physically outclassed.
I cannot stress how much I love this possession. Here's a list of everything that Sasha does to neuter the Kings offense and force a bad shot over the span of about 12 seconds:
1. Notices the attempt at a backdoor cut from Casspi, and cuts it off well.
2. When the cut turns into a screen, designed to get Cousins a free entry pass on the low block, Sasha helps off Casspi and denies the entry pass while Willy recovers.
3. After denying the entry, Sasha recovers back to his man (who has just received a pass) immediately, without overcommitting.
4. Uses his body to bump his man off his attempted route to the paint WITHOUT using his hands (AKA without fouling).
5. Gets into the body of the bigger Casspi after he gives the ball back to the lead guard, denying the pass from Collison as Casspi rolls to the hoop (Porzingis also correctly helps off non-shooter WCS to form a "bracket coverage").
6. As the shot goes up, he moves to a spot where he can potentially grab the rebound.
7. When Hernangomez grabs the rock after the missed tip-in, Vujacic is the first player who helped on the glass to sprint down the floor.
Literally zero of those actions required elite athleticism, size, or strength. That play is 100% defensive IQ. Sasha played the biggest part in shutting down this entire possession despite playing like, 2 seconds of on ball defense. If every Knick played intelligent defense like this (shoutout to my dude Lance, who does stuff like this all the time), you wouldn't see nearly as many defensive issues. This clip is a defensive coach's dream.
To be very clear -- Sasha is still not a great player, and he'll still be bad if his shot goes cold again. He's certainly not a starter, or even a quality backup, barring injury. But he still deserves a role on this team, and he deserves a role in the league, because this is the kind of stuff young players need to learn. This is the kind of stuff you don't see very often. This is the kind of stuff that goes unnoticed when you see complaints about Sasha Vujacic having a roster spot. This is the kind of stuff that help to turn Kristaps Porzingis from “unlimited potential” into “actual superstar”.
This is why Phil Jackson brought him here.