Peja is an amazing shooter with a boatload of confidence. He quietly is putting together an incredible season that has led to whispers about winning the MVP award. And while he won't win it – Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan will – Peja has been the main reason the Sacramento Kings have built the best record in the NBA without the services of Chris Webber.
Stojakovic is an interesting shooter. He lacks the textbook form of Chris Mullin or Sam Cassell. He winds up his shot, brings the ball back behind his head and then slings it toward the rim with an easy flick of the wrist. In fact, his shot reminds me a lot of Bird's, who had a similar motion with his arms (maybe that's why Larry says he's the best!).
But while his fundamentals might not be perfect, his release is incredibly consistent – the result of years and years of repetition. No matter where he is on the court, Stojakovic's shot looks the same. Whether it's from 10 feet or 30, he shoots a soft ball with great touch and range. And at 6-feet-10 inches and 230 pounds, he has the strength and stamina to keep it coming for an entire game.
Defenses have settled on a strategy for defending Peja: They're attacking him. "It's a joke," coach Rick Adelman said on Thursday. "Everybody is wrestling him, grabbing him and holding him. But he's been amazing. He rarely complains to the officials, he keeps moving and he's a better shooter off the dribble."
On Thursday Rick Fox, Devean George and Kobe Bryant took turns being physical with him – each without success. The dilemma as a defender is that, while you have to stay on his body every second, you also have to be aware that he'll backdoor you anytime and end up with a layup off a feed from Vlade Divac or (when healthy) Brad Miller.
Sacramento employs its big men at the high post, which opens up the lane for cutters. Peja works so well without the ball that defenders can never rest.
Stojakovic has improved his game considerably this season, in large part because of increased patience. He always has had so much confidence that he would shoot from anywhere at anytime, which frequently led to bad shots. Now he's letting the game come to him.
"I don't chase the game the way I used to," Stojakovic said. Against the Lakers, he had 14 points in the first quarter, zero in the second and then 18 more in the third. He picked his spots beautifully and didn't force anything. When he hit a lull, he used his strength and cunning to get to the foul line, where he leads the NBA at almost 93 percent.
Bird thinks Peja can get even better. "If I were him I'd spend all summer working on my low-post game," Larry Legend said. "You always have to add something to your game. Hooks, runners, lefty shots around the hoop. I used to work on those because of Michael Cooper. He was the only guy in the league who could guard me, and I had to be ready for him in the Finals."
Surely Peja has the size and strength to develop his low-post game, but his next step is to make his mark in the postseason – and possibly in the NBA Finals.
Two years ago Fox harassed an injured Stojakovic into a poor-shooting series that ended with the Lakers winning in seven games. Peja had a late three-pointer in Game 7 that he missed badly, a shot Fox loves to remind people about.
The playoffs are a different game. Shots are harder to come by, defenses are more physical and there's infinitely more pressure. Many shooters frequently tighten up when the season is on the line – I know I did early in my career.
But with maturity comes patience, knowledge and a more relaxed, confident approach. Peja has reached that level now. He's quicker and stronger than ever, he's in the midst of an incredible season and he's ready to take the next step in his own evolution – stardom in the postseason.
With the way Sacramento is playing right now, the postseason could take them into June. Maybe after that Stojakovic can work on his low-post game.