TORONTO — A swarm of Canadian journalists hovered around his locker, latching onto every word he spoke.
Steve Nash making a return to a country where he’s served as a living inspiration for all Canadian basketball players and the national team’s current general manager?
Nope. Nash remains in Vancouver with his personal trainer to heal the nerve issues in his back. Instead, Lakers backup center Robert Sacre took over ambassador duties.
“He got us right through customs easily,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni joked. “It was good.”
The Lakers like Sacre beyond travel conveniences, or even his dances from the bench. After being tabbed Mr Irrelevant as the 60th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, Sacre has morphed into a relevant role with the Lakers, averaging 4.6 points and 3.4 rebounds through 14.2 minutes both as a reserve (18 games) and starter.
“I look at it as a blessing in disguise,” Sacre said in his draft standing. “It kept me hungry and kept me on my toes in getting better. I work on my game all the time.”
The Lakers sensed enough in his improvement this offseason on his post moves, pick-and-roll execution and defense to sign him to a three-year extension worth $2.6 million, with the first two seasons guaranteed.
“You got to go through the struggle. That’s no joke. That non guarantee [contract] is overwhelming a little bit. But it was a blessing in disguise. The Lakers knew what the wanted. They’re happy with me and I’m happy being with this organization. I’m very blessed to be here.”
It’s still a challenge considering Sacre has sat on the bench for 15 games because of D’Antoni’s preference to have a stretch forward.
“He has to go with the mindset to bring us energy and run the floor” D’Antoni said. “He’s done that and done it well. But there’s a lot of people that have that role so we go back and forth at times to his detriment. He hasn’t been given enough space as he should. But he’s earned some playing time.”
Part of that stems from his team-first personality, which he partly credits toward Nash.
“He’s one of the hardest working guys even though he’s older than most people,” Sacre said of Nash, who turns 40 in February. “He’s always on the gym working his game, trying to improve and get better himself. I try to mimic my game after that.”
The similarities between Nash and Sacre stop there.
“It was weird. A lot of people [in Canada] compare me to Nash, but I play different positions,” Sacre said. “It’s two different spectrums completely. I never compared myself because he’s a point guard and I’m a center. But Nash has always been an inspiration for a lot of Canadians, including myself.”
After playing for the 2009 senior men’s national team and in the 2010 FIBA World Championships, is Sacre an inspiration for Canada?
“I don’t think of it as that,” Sacre said. “But I’m very proud to say that I represent Canada.”
Still, Sacre relished his Canada hosting a flurry of upcoming stars, including Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org