Mika Vukona talks up team game with Breakers
Mika Vukona is having a 'career' year for the Breakers in the Aussie NBL but it counts for nothing until the team starts winning again. He tells Fairfax Media.
Mention to Mika Vukona that he's finally earned the full respect of the Australian NBL and you get an insight into the mind of a man who deals in only one currency on the basketball court.
For the 31-year-old Vukona winning is really all that matters, and at a time when his New Zealand Breakers are struggling to do that his own accomplishments, his own breakthroughs are so secondary as to be almost inconsequential.
The fact of the matter is that right now, in the midst of what Breakers assistant coach Paul Henare refers to as a "career year", Vukona is playing the hoops of his life. That it's not translating into victories for a Breakers outfit chasing an historic fourth straight title is almost twisting the Fijian-born power forward into knots.
He'd trade every point, every rebound, for a few more wins for the 4-9 Breakers who stand on the brink of missing the post-season party unless they can turn things around. They have 15 games remaining, starting this afternoon in Sydney, and may need to win as many as 10 of them.
Vukona is doing everything he can, and more. He's always been admired around the league for his effort, intensity and flat-out desire, but this season that's gone to a new level as he's upped his offensive efficiency.
Listen to any televised game and chances are you'll hear a Vukona reference. "That kid's got elements of Mika about him" or "so and so just wants to be a player like Vukona" are the sort of observations becoming de rigueur from an impressed hoops community.
But ask him about this hard-earned respect, and the response is pure Vukona. The man may have numbers LeBron James would be proud of, but he's got an attitude that's pure Tim Duncan.
"I don't really care what they say about me," shrugged Vukona during the Breakers' two-week Christmas hiatus. "I want them to fear the Breakers, not me. You want them to concentrate on Tom [Abercrombie], you want them to concentrate on Alex [Pledger]. The more people we have they're worried about, the harder you are to beat as a group. That's how Perth roll at the moment - they've got guys in multiple positions that can play and you're worried about everybody."
If you sense some frustration, then you're an astute observer. Vukona feels little satisfaction around his dazzling statline - he's averaging 11.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists, while shooting 58 per cent from the floor and 80 from the line -- because it's not translating into wins.
"I do find it frustrating, because you look at each other coming into practice and guys are scratching their heads. We're training our arses off, everybody is doing the right things, but the results aren't the same.
"It's a good frustration, I think, because you're not worried about the team, you're not worried about the outcome," adds the four-time ANBL champion and Tall Blacks skipper.
Not worried? The Breakers' quest for an unprecedented fourth championship on the bounce is about as shaky as Len Brown's mayoralty.
"I'm really upbeat," declares Vukona, defiantly. "We've got three months ahead, and every game is incredibly important. Most of our losses have been against top-two or three teams. As a group we're there, but we're not executing down the stretch, and that's where you get frustrated.
"It's important to start winning because you don't want that to start seeping into your mentality. At the moment we feel like we can still win games, and as long as we have that mentality I'm not worried."
If the Breakers do turn this thing round - and it's a big "if" - then Vukona will assuredly be at the forefront. He's playing the most aggressive offensive basketball of his career. He's always been a beast on the boards and a fine defender but now he's knocking down mid-range jumpers and taking the ball to the hoop, he really is the full package.
"It's just happened," he shrugs. "Every year I aim to get better, and these are opportunities that have just arisen under the basket. I've been able to put the ball in the hoop.
"But it doesn't really matter when you've got a record like we have. If you have those numbers and your team is still losing, you might have to adjust the way you play so everyone can get more involved. It's a double-edged sword at the moment."
Vukona, at 1.98m and around 95kg, has always been undersized for his position, and digs deep into his reservoir of strength, willpower and skill to compete against much bigger men. But now he's hitting that jumper, he's a matchup nightmare for opponents who have a Christmas-list of things to deal with from him.
He's wiry strong, smart, athletic, seemingly indefatigable and plays with an intensity and purpose that few can hope to match. He's also a leader that inspires by deed.
"I've got to put my hand up and start showing it," he says "I've seen other guys do it, so it's about time I started taking my turn, but staying within my limits."
Vukona credits national coach Nenad Vucinic with helping to instill "guard handles and guard mentality" in him as a youngster. He feels happy he's now scoring for the Breakers like he's been able to for the Tall Blacks for a while, but is adamant there's still room to grow his game.
"The day where I can't improve any more is probably the day I hang up my boots. The exciting thing is you've got young guys like Reuben [Te Rangi] now playing the four spot, and he can really shoot the ball. When you go up against that type of talent every day it brings out the best in you."
His aggression "comes naturally", as does his mindset. "I go into every game feeling like I can beat everybody in my position through desire and will," he says.
Yes, he misses his old mate Dillon Boucher (now retired) and has no doubt the defections of the veteran, star import Cedric Jackson and coach Andrej Lemanis have been pieces of the puzzle they've struggled to replace.
But he remains defiantly optimistic that the turnaround is just around the corner, even with starting centre Pledger ruled out of today's game in Sydney.
"This is the biggest test of a championship team, because these are tough times? But everybody in this organisation is excited about where we're at.
"This is a chance for us to show that we are the real deal. This is where we show our true colours, stick together, ride the rough times and show those three years weren't wasted."
You put it to Vukona that the old All Black maxim may apply here - that if you stand still, others soon pass you. He bristles a little at that. "We're still searching for our pathway," he says. "I feel we know where we want to go but we've got to figure out how to get there."
Following Vukona's steely example would be a good place to start.
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