Hungry Jack's NBL
Catching up with Jack White and Dejan Vasiljevic
Written for nbl.com.au by Tom Hersz
They say patience is a virtue. If that’s true, then Jack White and DJ Vasiljevic are two of the most virtuous players in the NBL.
These two players are connected more than you know. Both hail from Victoria, they played on junior state teams together, junior national teams together, attended the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence together, then both played collegiately in the ACC for four years, before finally returning to start their pro careers in the NBL last season.
White and Vasiljevic were both having big impacts on their teams and starting as rookies. Then by some horrific twist of fate, these two young stars ruptured their Achilles tendons within a week of each other.
White had just returned from a month out with a serious finger injury. His Melbourne United were rolling and he’d lost just one game that he’d played in.
Vasiljevic had helped the Kings stay in the race for the top four and was one of the favourites for the Rookie of the Year award when his injury occurred.
Last month, after about eight and a half months of rehab post-surgery, both players returned to the court – again within days of each other. White has still lost just one game as a pro player, while Vasiljevic is helping Sydney cover for the loss of their starting backcourt.
Both were good enough to chat with NBL Media last week for an in-depth discussion on their rehabs, recovery processes – both physical and mental, their return games, where their teams are at right now, and what they hope to achieve for the rest of this season.
Both of you were in the midst of really productive rookie campaigns when your Achilles injuries occurred. Do you recall your first thought at that moment?
Vasiljevic: I had the confidence when I first came in that I could kind of shock a few people in this league and show that I did belong, and I was proving that. We were sitting third at the time and we were feeling really good about ourselves, and then obviously going down with my Achilles didn’t help. I knew right away that it was my Achilles. As soon as you look back, you know people tell you that you’ve done it.
I was frustrated, but I think it didn’t sink in until after the game where I couldn’t walk, I was on crutches, they were organising surgery, so that’s when it really hit me. But, that’s the sport of basketball, that’s my job and that’s the risk; injury’s a risk.
I mean, it’s over now, I’m back playing. I’m very fortunate that I think I’ve grown mentally, just being mentally challenged. Especially the first three months not being able to walk, not being able to run, jump, pretty much do anything really, to the point where I started getting frustrated with myself. But, when you have your family, your friends to support you a lot and always there for you, just makes life so much easier.
White: I was obviously pretty flat. When the incident occurred, I knew in that moment that I had done the Achilles. I’d never done one before, but it was kind of in my head and I knew it straight away. Especially coming off the broken finger as well, just being out for a month was difficult enough and then second game back having that happen was pretty devastating.
I had great support from the club and teammates, trying to keep my spirits high, but there’s only so much that can be said and done because obviously, you work out pretty quickly that you’re not going to be able to do what you want to do for a significant period of time. I guess even more than that, the thing that affected me the most was just not feeling like myself.
I take pride in being super professional and taking care of my body and being athletic and these sort of things, and that all gets taken away in that moment. When you’re in a moonboot and cast and having surgery, and kind of just watching your leg rot away, that was super difficult. But it got a lot better once I got out of the cast and started rehabbing. It gave me little goals and things to focus on that you could see improvement, see progress and that definitely helped. But it was definitely difficult to process. It was a whirlwind.
As you resigned yourselves to the reality of a lengthy rehab, how important was it to have support from teammates, friends and family?
Vasiljevic: Yeah. I wouldn’t say I’m very fortunate, but I had my family there when it did happen. My Dad did take time off work to stay with me after surgery, go to check-ups and stuff like that, so I’m very fortunate to have him around.
But the Kings organisation were unreal. They said I could go home once I was given the all clear to not have to see the doctor for another five weeks. They said: ‘Hey go home, be with your family, they’ll take good care of you, we all know that.’
Chris Pongrass would call me every second day to check in and see if I needed anything. Coach Adam Forde at the time, he was always texting me, James Duncan [too]. I think I formed a great relationship with all three of them that it actually shows how much they really did care.
Obviously now, well CP’s still here, but Fordey in Cairns and JD in Brisbane, but I’m still following what they do, we still message back and forth because that’s just the friendship we formed. I mean, it was just great to have people like that because it made my life really, really easy and once I was able to walk it made my life easier.
White: It was huge. From the outset, I was confident in my ability to be able to rehab it and come back the same if not better than what I was. Not to say I didn’t have those thoughts where I worried if I was going to be the same player, athlete, all those things before the injury, but that [support] was integral to the process because I felt like it was more of a mental thing than physical at that point.
Once I got to the point of like I know I’m going to do the work and I’m going to get back to how I was, if not better, that mental part of watching the team and not being a part of it and not being able to compete – I just love to compete and play, and not being able to do that for like seven months before I could do some competitive stuff, was difficult and that was probably the thing I missed most. So, it was super difficult.
Did you two talk to each other around that time? If so, what was exchanged?
White: Yeah, I was devastated for him. He did his a few days or a week after me and I remember seeing the play unfold where he looks back behind him and I’m like ‘oh, you’re kidding me.’ And it was – for lack of a better word – funny because, obviously we were both rookies in the NBL, both from Victoria, grew up playing state teams as teammates, both went to the ACC, come back to the NBL and we do our Achilles a week apart from each other. It was just absurd.
So yeah, we spoke. We spoke a lot throughout the process, kind of updating each other on how we were going and trying to keep each other in good spirits because it was a super lonely thing. Obviously, him being in Sydney and being away from family for the majority of it, that would have been even more difficult for him.
And he was having a great year himself and I knew that they really would have missed him out there on the court and he’s similar to me in that he just loves to compete and missed that aspect of the game more than anything. But going through that with him, definitely helped. I felt happy for him when he made progress and vice versa, so that was definitely helpful. But it was wild. I just couldn’t believe that he had done it a week after me.
Vasiljevic: Jack White is my brother for life and he’ll probably say the same thing. We played state together, a few Australian teams together. Obviously [I] was disappointed to see him do it the week before mine and then when I went down, he reached out straight away.
But we were just exchanging notes, kind of asking how surgery went. The rehab, we kind of exchanged like when are you supposed to run, when are you supposed to jump, when are you supposed to return to play. We were just exchanging notes and obviously our physios did the same; they were always calling each other every couple of weeks just to see how we were tracking.
So, we were always calling and texting just making sure we were both kind of good, and I think the biggest one was mentally, we were both mentally good.
Obviously, United won the championship last year and Jack’s very fortunate to be part of that but I know he’d love to be out there to play, so I would make sure he knew ‘hey, you’re part of a winning group. The first part of the season you impacted United at a very high level and they had to adjust without you, but you’re still part of that championship.’
It was more just mental stuff, so it was good to have him.
Jack – how hard was it watching your team in the playoffs without being able to help them?
Oh, I was just jealous. At the same time, I had the utmost confidence in [David] Barlow and Mason [Peatling] stepping up to fill that hole that I left; that they’d do an amazing job and as we saw, they did.
But I was just envious. And even for them coming back to Melbourne for that final game when we won, and everyone’s telling me ‘you were just as big a part of it as anyone else’. You know, I appreciated that but I couldn’t embrace that thought because in my mind, I wanted to be out on the court with them and really feel a part of it. But, at the same time, that’s just part of it and something you need to accept.
And if anything, I would say that it just motivated me to keep pushing through the process. And not rushing it or anything but having that in the back of my mind that this hurts – that feeling of missing out – and this is something that I want to experience this year and win again, and be out there on the court this time.
Both of your timetables had you missing the start of the season even though you were back practising. How hard was that, feeling ready, but knowing you had to wait a little longer?
Vasiljevic: Yeah, you can get frustrated because you want to play and you feel like you can play, but it’s the longevity behind it. Dave Hillard has told me many, many times ‘Yeah, you could play right now, but we want you to be able to play in ten or fifteen years’ time to your very best. So, he’s very good at what he does; obviously he’s been a part of the Boomers’ program now, so if you talk to any of those boys they’ll probably harp on the same thing.
Dave really cares about longevity and everyone kept saying ‘you’re close, you’re close’ and I was like ‘stop telling me that because I will get frustrated’. So, Dave just said ‘Hey, don’t listen to them. It’s just me and you. Just continue to practice and we’re going to give you the all-clear very, very soon to play and you’ve just got to trust it.’ And I did, and I’m very fortunate for him and Zone 34 that they were able to get me back on court.
White: Yeah, it was difficult because I felt that what I was able to do physically was at a level where I could be inserted. But in hindsight now, I definitely don’t regret taking that time in practice because going from practice to a game is completely different as I’m experiencing now. I’m just trying to find my groove again. And as well as that, I guess reflecting on when DJ made his return, because of scheduling they weren’t able to get in the meaningful practices he needed for his loading to get to a point where you can just take the leash off.
But for me, when I came back, because I had done those three weeks, there were no restrictions. So that was a benefit of taking my time in that respect, and I guess just good luck that we were able to make that happen and not have to do limited minutes, cos I feel like that would just drive me insane.
I know it was difficult for DJ because we’ve spoken about it. But that’s the thing. You just need to trust the medical staff and the sports science behind it in terms of being able to get ready, because you don’t want to go through eight and half months – there’s no point rushing something at the end and it sets you all the way back. Experiencing some minor setbacks along the way made me more comfortable in being patient and waiting for the right time.
And then once you had your return date, what were the emotions or feelings in the lead up to that first game, both in practice during the week and then on game day?
White: I was super excited the whole week. I was actually moving places leading up to that, so it gave me a little distraction because I knew it would have been keeping me up at night and losing sleep over it, just because I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about it. So, that was a positive in that respect, just to get my mind off it.
But yeah, just excited. I knew that I had done the work and I’d been feeling good in practice and obviously the boys were getting around me. And the coaches, just the support and confidence they were trying to instil in me was paramount to me not feeling out of place.
But I tell you what. Game day comes around and you’re in the locker room, you get ready and get taped up, and go out there on the court. I’d already done some shooting groups and joined in a little bit in the warmups, but going through it for real and you hear your name called out for the first time again; I was super nervous just to play and be in that environment again.
But that just settles down once you’re in the game because you’re so fixated on just trying to help the team win. Teammates and coaches were great out there. Whenever I made a little play, the boys would get behind me, so that was just awesome to feel that continuous support, throughout the whole process and even now.
Vasiljevic: I didn’t find out I was playing until that Thursday actually. They were telling me ‘You’ll travel, you might suit up, just be prepared.’ But, when they did announce on that Thursday that I was going to play, I got goosebumps.
I was very emotional because it had been a long time – I think it was eight and a half months at that time since I did it – so, just to get out there and run around, I think there were a lot of people shocked that I came back in eight months’ time, instead of the projected nine or ten that they were looking at.
That’s just credit to myself, to my physio, to the Kings because of all the hard work that we put [in] behind the scenes. I’m just very fortunate to be back playing the game I love.
DJ – you’ve played in 4 games and have now just had an extra week off. How is the body feeling? Do you think you have your game legs back under you now?
I think these couple weeks of no games and more practice, playing more in practice with the conditioning and getting my legs underneath me, I think it’s helped me heaps. I feel like my legs are back to normal.
I can go for longer spurts if I do require to play them in a game and I’ll have no issues with guarding or playing high minutes if I do need to. I’m not expecting to, obviously I’m still very early coming back, but I’ve definitely got my legs back.
Jack – you’ve played in 3 games and your minutes have increased a little in each. What is the focus right now as you continue to ramp up and look to help your team?
Just continuing to play the defence and do the little things and scoring or whatever else will take care of itself. Again, just continue to enjoy being back out there. Even though I’ve got those three games under my belt since recovering, I still feel like I have such a long way to go. So, I’m excited at that prospect that even though I feel like I’m affecting the game in a positive way and helping us win, that I can still do more. So, I’m just continuing to put the work in in practice, look after myself and keep trying to learn about how I can affect the game in positive ways.
I feel like I’m improving, the role is starting to evolve as well from what it was in the first game to how it sits now and in the future. I’m just trying to embrace that and enjoy being out there with the guys, and just keep taking it day by day. I’m keeping the goals short term to realise the progress I’m making.
I feel like I definitely need to start shooting threes; I haven’t put up a three in three games, so need to start hitting some threes, getting some dunks and giving us energy on defence and keep taking it as it comes.
DJ – you guys have had a lot of injuries to start the season. How do you think the Kings are tracking right now in terms of building into a contender and where do you see your game helping with that?
It’s very hard to judge because we’ve always had someone out, multiple guys have been out, other guys have had to step up, which is a good thing to see. But, for myself it’s very hard to judge because if we have our whole team together and we start rallying off wins and start playing well, then you can evaluate but it’s just hard to evaluate when you’ve got so many guys out.
Obviously, we’re going to have a couple of guys returning in the next game or two, so I think we can slowly start to evaluate from there.
Jack – Melbourne are obviously trying to defend the championship, but with a very different roster. You’ve won 4 straight, but how do you assess where the group is at and how can you help?
Obviously, after a rocky start, definitely worries within the group, but at the same time, I was confident in what I’d done that I’d be able to have a positive impact on us winning upon my return. Obviously, Chris [Goulding] coming back is a huge piece for us on both ends of the floor and just what he brings as a leader to our group. So, I knew we were missing some important pieces.
But where we’re at now, obviously it’s easy to say when you’ve won four in a row, but we’re definitely taking steps in the right direction, but there are still so many things that we can improve on. Just taking care of the ball, not giving up o-boards; so many things that we’ve taken from our games to say: ‘Look, we’re getting wins, we’re doing a good job now, but if we want to defend our championship this year, there’s still so much we can get better at.’
Just the fact that everyone in our group has bought in and is trusting Deano and the coaches having an emphasis on our defence, really hanging our hat on that in trying to be the best defensive team in the league and we trust that our offence will take care of itself if we get that done. I’m confident that we’ll be there right at the end if we keep on this trajectory.
Finally, what are your expectations for the rest of the season from an individual perspective?
Vasiljevic: It’s just to show people that I’m better than I was last year. Once I get off the minute restrictions and figure out my role in Chase Buford’s system, I’m slowly starting to do that as I said, I think teams are going to be very hesitant playing the Kings.
Obviously, if we get everyone back, you’ve got Jaylen [Adams] who can score, you’ve got Jarell [Martin] who’s playing really well, [Xavier] Cooks is just all over the place, he’s probably one of the best two-way guys in the league and obviously R.J. Hunter as well.
So, I think it’s just fitting in with those guys. If you want to try and stop them, then one of us can get going and it makes life harder for everyone. But for me, it’s just to show everyone that I’m healthy and continue to play the game of basketball that I love.
White: I’m a firm believer that winning takes care of all individual stuff that you want to achieve, so with that, I want to be a winner. I want to definitely continue that.
But me, I take great pride in my defence. A goal of mine is definitely to be defensive player of the year. I feel like I’m a very versatile defender and can block shots, get steals, guard any position in this league, so I’m super excited to keep building towards that and improving that side of my game.
But, as well as that, just showcase improvement in my shooting from last year. I always felt like I’ve been a really good shooter, but I just want to let that translate at a high level in the games. Especially with how we play and guys that get in the paint, I want to be an effective floor spacer for us as well as someone that can slash and get to the rim and just get better at creating for us both in the half court and in transition. Those are the main things.
I really believe that winning and getting in a better headspace mentally and confidence wise will allow those things to shine through. But just trying to stay patient and take it one game at a time. I’m confident that stuff will take care of itself if we continue to win and play the right way.
And I want to stay healthy and stay out on the floor!
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.