BURNABY — Back in 2018, over a precious few weeks of March Madness, Jusuf Sehic and Sasha Vujisic wrote one heck of a first chapter together on the basketball court.
It was a budding storyline, co-penned between a pair of Burnaby South Secondary stars, which seemed to cry out for more.
After all, when was the last time you saw two so-called ‘bigs’, in the 6-foot-7 Suhic and the 6-foot-10 Vujisic, combine to so naturally showcase the beauty which comes when height can not only score, but also move, sacrifice, pass and ultimately see its surroundings in such a present way?
Yet just as the figurative ink had begun to dry on their heady accomplishments, one which saw them discover something akin to a strain of super-human 11th-hour chemistry as they carried the Rebels to their first B.C. boys senior varsity title in 39 years, the partnership had been dissolved.
Sehic, a senior and the tournament MVP, was on his way to a collegiate career with the Simon Fraser Clan.
And after putting in one of the most memorable performances ever in a B.C. final by a 10th grader, Vujisic had two more seasons left to serve as the lynchpin of a program which would surely be the favourite to win three straight titles before he would graduate to the next level in the spring of 2020.
Alas, every journey unfolds one step at a time, and in the case of Sehic and Vujisic, paths once divergent have somehow found a way to converge.
After spending two seasons at Simon Fraser unable to find his on-court fit with the Clan, Sehic looked north to Kamloops’ Thompson Rivers WolfPack.
And after helping lead Burnaby South to its second B.C. title in three seasons this past March, Vujisic decided to do the same after the coronavirus pandemic scuttled his plans to not only join the Serbian Under-18 national team, but potentially remain abroad to begin a professional career in Europe.
A PLACE WHERE OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS
“When they were in high school, I enjoyed the way that they played together,” remembers Clark, who in early April announced the signing of Sehic, then closed out one of the most significant months in the program’s recruiting history by announcing that Vujisic would follow. The class will also include Kelowna Secondary’s talented 6-foot-3 guard Jayden Lalonde.
“At Burnaby South, they played through the post… the ball went in and then it came out, and if not, they went high-low,” said Clark. “Both Jusuf and Sasha are very good high-low passers. We play through the post quite a bit, so those two guys, having some back-to-the-basket game, and the ability to face it, and to have touch in passing, and also familiarity with each other, it’s something you hope will really translate through our time together.”
Of course with the Princeton-styled flavour of the TRU offence, multi-skilled players like Sehic, Vujisic and Lalonde are highly sought.
And when you consider that among its four graduates, that the Pack have lost their top three — Anton Bilous, Joe Davis, Michael Roualt — in minutes played, points and starts, the 2020-21 season is one chalk full of opportunity.
To take an even deeper dive into the numbers, Thompson Rivers has no rising seniors this coming season.
The team’s only returning double-digit scorer is rising fourth-year guard Tyus DeVries, the former Sardis Falcons star who averaged 11.7 ppg coming off Clark’s bench last season.
A trio of experienced returnees this coming season will include rising fourth-year swingman Rojhae Colbert, a 6-foot-6 native of Phoneix, and rising third-year B.C. guards Brendan Sullivan (Brentwood College) and Richard Mageto (Clayton Heights).
NEW HOME, NEW FUTURE
As Scott Clark has seen throughout his 25-year career as a university head coach at both Simon Fraser and Thompson Rivers, it’s tough business trying to define why a player does or does not fit with any particular school’s program.
Case in point: Jusuf Sehic.
After a redshirt freshman season at SFU, Sehic saw action in just four games this past season with the Clan.
Yet he has unquestionably grown as a player over his two years atop Burnaby Mountain, and it’s not unreasonable to picture him making a complete about-face in his career trajectory by simply finding a new and different system.
“When I was at SFU, we had Matt Kuzminski on the team,” Clark said of the 6-foot-4 wing and former Nanaimo-Dover Bay star who starred for the Clan over its final three U Sports’ seasons (2007-08 through 2009-10) within a core that included the likes of Sean Burke, Kevin Shaw, Chas Kok and Eric Burrell.
“Matt had been at UVic (2004-06), and for whatever reason it was just not the right fit,” continued Clark. “That is not knocking the University of Victoria, but he came in here and it was just a better fit immediately. I’m not a better coach. It just happens to be the circumstances surrounding things, whether it’s the depth of the team, the role you envision for the guy… sometimes it just goes better at another place.”
That’s a truism that virtually every university coach subscribes to.
For his part, Kuzminski re-invented himself offensively over the season he sat out (2006-07) on his transfer to SFU, developing a mid-range runner which helped him find a big role in his new scheme over three seasons in Clan colours. He has since become the successful head coach of Nanaimo’s Vancouver Island University Mariners where he has won a pair of CCAA national championships.
Sehic stresses that his decision to attend TRU ultimately came down to what was best for his own future as a student-athlete.
Yet he admitted the familiarity he had with Clark, Vujisic and Goran Nogic, the WolfPack women’s coach who was his former coach at 3D Basketball Academy, made it an easier decision.
And while he is itching to get up to Kamloops and get on the floor with his new teammates, the pandemic has forced him to be creative with workouts at nearby Central Park, often times with Vujisic and others.
“I feel a lot stronger physically,” Sehic says. “All through high school, I relied on my height and my length to score, but now I feel I have the weight and the strength to muscle through smaller guys.”
STEELED BY HIS ADVERSITY
There are gifts which Sasha Vujisic possess that are readily apparent to anyone watching him on the court.
“He’s big, he’s 6-10, he has very good hands, a very good feel for the game and all of that is innate to him,” says Clark. “He’s also been coached very well by (Burnaby South head coach) Mike (Bell) and Goran. And, he’s also really, really young. Maybe he’s 18?”
Just turned. In fact he was only 17 in March when he helped lead the Rebels to the B.C. Quad-A title at the Langley Events Centre.
Yet Vujisic has also battled hard-luck injuries throughout his high school career, many of the repetitive strain variety, and the determination he has shown in battling through them says everything you need to know about his work ethic.
In Grade 10, soon after joining the senior varsity a season ahead of schedule, he suffered an ankle injury which got him off to a late start in terms of clicking with the main rotation.
In Grade 11, he broke a finger in his shooting hand at the Tsumura Basketball Invitational and was sidelined for six weeks, then suffered a high-ankle sprain at the provincials which kept him out of the Rebels’ season-ending semifinal loss to eventual B.C. champion Lord Tweedsmuir.
And then this past summer, in August, he suffered a broken leg during a casual three-on-three session.
The key themes running through all of them for a kid who went a perfect 10-0 in games he played on the championship side of the senior varsity provincials over three seasons?
The Rebels were never the same without him, and in every instance other than the 2019 high-ankle sprain at provincials, the rehabilitation process to get back on the floor proved especially arduous for Vujisic.
Throw in the debilitating restrictions imposed by the global pandemic, and this spring, the challenge for him to find that elusive level of fitness is greater than ever.
“It was pretty difficult to coming back after my broken leg (in January) because of my conditioning,” Vujisic admits. “I went into the weight room then, but I couldn’t do much there because of the shape I was in at the time. When I came back in January, I had gone from like 235 pounds to 260. By provincials I had cut down to 255, but I was still above playing weight. Since then, running and doing cardio has brought it down to 250.”
That Vujisic is that cognizant of his fitness level, and has embraced the virtual off-season workout sent over by TRU trainers, has Clark excited about the future.
“He is a very young kid with a big upside and that excites you as a coach,” he says. “The very best players are obsessive about their conditioning.”
To inspire his players, Clark had former South Kam star and current Miami Heat forward Kelly Olynyk speak virtually to the team about the commitment he has made to his conditioning.
“I hope that resonated with the guys,” continues Clark, “that hey, this guy is a pro, and if the other pros are doing four hours a day, he wants a leg up so he’ll go and do five.
“Sasha is just realizing the things he can do, what training looks like,” the coach adds. “A lot of times, when guys are in high school, they’re good players, but they haven’t learned to be good trainers yet, He’s learning what that looks like, and I think once he gets the physical component, he will get better in a hurry. He has good vision, he can put touch on a pass, he has soft hands, if he gets his hands on a ball, it’s probably his rebound, and he is pretty strong even though he really hasn’t picked up a weight yet.”
Clark has been around long enough to know that chemistry comes only through hard work and patience.
“You can’t just go on-line, have a team meeting and force chemistry,” he laughs. “If you could, we’d be on-line all day. You can’t go on-line and purchase it. It’s not available at bonding.com. It takes time, and as a coach I have to be more patient in regards to that. But, you don’t want to be too patient.”
And in a pair of new recruits from Burnaby South Secondary, who bring not only size but multi-skill resumes, he has a pair of pieces that his program could eventually be built around.
And if you ask either of them, a good part of that chemistry is already in place.
“If I get an opportunity to attack, Sasha just knows where to move, based on which direction I go because we’ve played together for so long in club and high school,” Sehic says. “If I go middle or baseline, he will move to a position where he knowns that if his man helps, I can find him and I can get him the ball because I trust him to score.”
And so now, as their paths cross once again, a storyline which couldn’t get past its first chapter seems ready to pick up where it left off, with two old high school teammates ready for even grander adventures.
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