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Lakers’ Roster Gets Infusion

Times Staff Writer

In a nice change of pace since Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the Lakers added a player.

And then another.

At the end of a week in which Shaquille O’Neal stalked off and a handful of others chose to become free agents, the Lakers drafted Slovenian point guard Sasha Vujacic and Providence power forward Marcus Douthit with the 27th and 56th picks in Thursday night’s draft.

Vujacic, 20 years old and 6 feet 7, played the last three seasons in Italy, where he developed skills as a ball-handler, shooter and passer. Had Vujacic stayed in last year’s draft, the Lakers would have considered him with their second-round pick, which they used on Luke Walton.

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Laker General Manager Mitch Kupchak said Vujacic needed to develop his body and that he’d probably spend next season near the end of the Laker bench, which seemed good enough for Vujacic.

“I can’t explain how happy I am and how proud I am,” Vujacic said via conference call from New York.

“I think I can fit good in L.A. I like teamwork. I like to play with other players.”

Douthit played four seasons at Providence, averaging 7.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists as a senior. According to Kupchak, Douthit will have to play well in summer league to earn an invitation to training camp in the fall.

The draft landed in a hectic period for the Lakers, who have a coach to hire, apparently a superstar to trade and another to recruit.

Hoping they’re doing enough to placate Kobe Bryant and adhere to owner Jerry Buss’ agenda, the Lakers continued to gather potential trade partners for O’Neal, kept Rudy Tomjanovich waiting in Houston and started what appears to be a rebuilding project around Bryant, assuming he’ll have it.

The Lakers’ run was bound to end like this, perhaps, with O’Neal and Bryant unable -- or unwilling -- to play with each other anymore, the Lakers with the 27th pick, everybody picking through what’s left and no one really sure how everything will turn out.

Kupchak continued his hope that O’Neal would reconsider his trade demand, which those close to O’Neal say is out of the question.

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His former boss, Jerry West, told ESPN during the draft he didn’t believe Kupchak would trade O’Neal and that, either way, his Memphis Grizzlies would not become involved in trade discussions.

As for reports the Dallas Mavericks were maneuvering to acquire O’Neal, West said, “Why would [the Lakers] trade him in their own conference?”

Kupchak would say only that the telephone calls from fellow general managers continued to come in, that more than a few were about O’Neal, but that his focus for the day was the draft.

“His name came up about a thousand times a day for the last week,” he said.

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Perhaps Kupchak is conflicted about trading O’Neal, caught between moving quickly to satisfy Bryant before full-bore free agency sets in and allowing O’Neal to work through his issues and then, if possible, reconsider.

He repeated that having O’Neal and Bryant return together, “would be our hope,” but, he said, “We don’t know how that’s going to play out. I would hope [O’Neal] would be back next year.

“In my heart, I believe it’s going to work out.”

That includes other pending free agents, Derek Fisher, Slava Medvedenko and Karl Malone among them.

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Malone had two knee injuries and will be 41 in July, so Kupchak will operate under the assumption he will retire and hope he doesn’t. He has not spoken with Malone, but planned to before summer moved too far along, and said he has been told Malone could recover without surgery.

“I think this has to be a period where everybody calms down a little bit,” Kupchak said. “And that includes Karl.”

For now it means a rangy point guard who, in the Lakers’ best scenario, will be a fifth guard.

Given Gary Payton will be in the final year of his contract and will be 36 next month and Fisher’s decision to opt out of his contract, Kupchak said, backcourt help was critical, even if the help was not imminent.

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The Lakers will have to buy Vujacic out of his contract with Snaidero Udine of the Italian League, which Kupchak predicted would be a formality.

Asked to compare Vujacic to a familiar player, Kupchak said, “You’d like to use a name like Peter Maravich, but that’s not fair,” adding that Vujacic had neither the talent nor the flair of Maravich.

Douthit, Kupchak said, is athletic and, “a player we feel dropped farther than he should have dropped.”

With every move by the Mavericks, the conspiracy theorists brought them closer to a deal with the Lakers for O’Neal. The Sacramento Kings appear to be in. And so do the Phoenix Suns. And, perhaps, the Indiana Pacers. And Kupchak continued to say he would resist the idea of it, even as he felt the pressure from O’Neal and his representatives to follow through on their demand.

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At the end of the night Kupchak said, “Tomorrow we’ll wake up and put aside all of this draft stuff and continue our search for a coach. As free agency approaches, which is July 1, we’re going to have to spend time on that as well.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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LAKER PICKS

SASHA VUJACIC

Guard, Snaidero Udine (Italy)

6-7, 193; 14.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.3 apg

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No. 27 pick: Early entry.... Has been compared to Brent Barry.... Possesses good shooting and passing skills.... A combo guard who’s learning the point.... Moves to the basket without fear.... Looks to pass the ball to teammates for better shots.

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MARCUS DOUTHIT

Forward, Providence

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6-11, 233; 7.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.2 apg

No. 56 pick: Finished career ranked second all-time in blocks at Providence with 295. Finished third in the Big East and seventh in the nation in blocked shots per game as a senior (3.2).... Long and athletic big man who can run and block shots. Didn’t get many chances to show offensive skills in college.


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