BRADENTON, FLA -- If Sasha Vujacic has the kind of comeback season he is expecting now with the Los Angeles Lakers, it won't be because he suddenly improved his jump shot or his pick and roll defense.
It will have more to do with the drop shot he's been seeing, or the serve-and-volley game he has come to like so much.
It's tennis -- not basketball -- and more specifically the tennis and the focus of girlfriend Maria Sharapova, former No. 1 player in the world and past Wimbledon champion, that should get the credit for Vujacic's game.
"It's interesting,'' Vujacic told FanHouse over the weekend. "She has helped me. We've helped each other, I think. As two pro athletes -- in different sports -- we both understand what the other is doing and going through, and what it takes to do well in what we do. She's working hard. I'm working hard. It's good together.''
It was Sharapova who convinced Vujacic to come to Florida last week to train for the first time at the acclaimed IMG Academy in Bradenton, where she has trained most of her athletic life.
She is preparing for the U.S. Open that begins later this month in New York. And while she was on the tennis court under the steaming midday sun, he was in the gymnasium 50 feet away, sweating through his own shirt, too. They were doing completely different workouts, on different courts, but they were pushing each other.
She was slamming shots across the net to two men, who were slamming them right back. He was working under the guidance of an IMG trainer, along with his own Serbian basketball coach. She finished before he did, then came into the gym and watched him finish. They left together.
"We're both serious about what we do,'' Vujacic said after he finished. "I played a little (tennis) earlier this summer, but not now. She has to focus on a tournament. I have to start getting ready for my season.''
Vujacic is going into his seventh NBA season -- all with the Lakers -- and is beaming about the chance at a third-consecutive championship. At the same time, his role last season diminished significantly as he struggling through shoulder, ankle and hamstring problems.
He averaged career lows of 8.6 minutes and 2.8 points in only 67 games. Although he was once considered a rising talent for the Lakers, a combo guard with a sweet shot -- he looked more like a fallen talent last season, finding himself in the doghouse of coach Phil Jackson.
His season did end on a high note, but it couldn't erase a year-long struggle.
In the Game 6 victory of the NBA Finals, Vujacic led the Lakers reserves with nine points, including a pair of 3-point baskets. And with 11 seconds left in Game 7 -- and the Lakers clinging to a two point lead -- he made two crucial free throws that secured the championship.
"There were a lot of ups and downs from a personal standpoint in the season, but if you asked me now if we could do it the same way again, I'd take it any time of the day,'' he said. "It's a team game, and we're going for a 3-peat now. And nothing is better, or more important than winning.''
Earlier this summer, the Lakers explored the possibility of trading Vujacic, in the final year of his contract paying him $5.2 million. He likely will go into training camp as their fifth guard, fighting for playing time behind Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, recently acquired Steve Blake and recently re-signed Shannon Brown.
"Everybody wants to play. I want to play. I want to be in the game to take the big shot,'' he said. "If you ask me whether I'd rather play five minutes with the game on the line at the end, or 30 minutes in the middle, and I'd pick playing five with the game on the line.''
Vujacic likely will travel to New York to see at least a part of the U.S. Open, but it won't be purely to watch. He also will be working out while he is there. He might be coming into the most important season of his career.
"I have Lakers written across my chest. I'm part of a great team, and I've been there from the beginning,'' he said. "We have great chemistry, but from a personal view, I want to come into camp and get my spot on the team. I want to be a bigger puzzle piece this season.''