Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Player Report Card: Linas Kleiza

(Boulder-CO) “Whooo-Whooo”, that’s the sound of the L-Train coming through! That’s right, Nuggets Nation it was a great year for the third year player from Kaunas, USSR which gave the “Kleiza Crazies” a lot to cheer about when in full force at the Pepsi Center. All of Kleiza’s major numbers are up from last year, and the Nuggets only victory over the division rival Utah Jazz this season can be squarely attributed to LK establishing a career-high 41 points to make the Nuggets the only team in the league to have four players hit the 40-point mark this season.

In the 2007-08 season, LK upped his scoring average nearly 50% from last season’s total to finish with a career-high 11.1 points per game while harvesting the highest two-point field goal percentage on the team at 56%. Kleiza also set new personal bests in rebounding and assists with 4.3 boards and 1.2 assists per game while playing the most minutes of any Nugget not to start more than 15 games this season and playing in a career-high 23.9 minutes per game.

In my eyes, this season, Linas proved to me to be the most reliable and consistent option the Nuggets had off the bench. Now, that’s not to take anything away from J.R. Smith or his potential to just take over a game athletically, but what LK does off the bench is just as impressive in its own way. He rebounds very well for a small forward, is one of the best off the dribble finishers on this team at the rack, and his tenacity, will, and desire to improve could only be more contagious in a perfect world.

However, there are a few problems regarding Linas Kleiza. Problems, that unfortunately, may not be disappearing for quite some time. The main problem for Kleiza, and his situation in Denver, is Carmelo Anthony. ‘Melo is going to play upwards of 40 minutes a game and with one of the premier scorers in the league demanding the lion’s share of the minutes it’s hard sometimes for Linas to showcase his talent. Face it, Kleiza is a true small forward. At a solidly built 6’8”, LK is just too big to play shooting guard, but not strong enough (at least at this point in his career) defensively to handle power forwards. Sure, he is capable offensively of exploiting the foot speed of a larger front court player, but that takes space on the wing to accomplish and it seems pretty clear that ‘Melo has the wing occupied until further notice. Need some statistical proof to back up what would seem like an off-the-curb diagnosis? How about if I told you Linas only averaged nine points per game as a starting guard while when given a starters 36.2 minutes per game at small forward his scoring skyrockets to 18.5 points per game!

Unbelievable, Mr. Ripley? Believe it! Cumulatively, in his 13 starts this season, Kleiza averaged 17.1 points per game compared to an even ten when brought off the bench. All of which mean the only thing standing in the way of LK’s progression is the lack of light available for him to shine in.

Another aspect of Kleiza’s game that is troublesome is how much LK’s game seems to be dictated by swagger. In the 41 games Kleiza scored in double-digits, only ten of them were in a game when he had not scored in double-figures the game before; including a red-hot stretch of 13games where he scored in double-figures except for twice falling just one short with nine points.

But, all in all, Linas Kleiza is the kind of young player that every coach dreams of having available on their bench. He plays gritsy minutes every time you turn to him for help. He is finding ways to improve all the time, and provides this team with much needed swagger and toughness when he’s on his game. My only concern is how much LK’s game is being retarded by the inability, at times, to find his way into a more steady rotation because when ‘Melo is on there’s no stopping him. And unfortunately for Linas - ‘Melo is on more often than not.

Furthermore, and especially with the kind of mini-breakout season that Linas produced, don’t be surprised if you here Kleiza’s name involved with trade speculations this summer. At 1.8 million dollars in salary for next season, teams all over the league with openings at the three spot are probably salivating at the chance to put this guy into a major role because his services are cheap and his upside is huge. Plus, he’s young and has proven to be a hard worker. Both of which are two intangible aspects that make LK a juicy piece of trade bait for the Nuggets to dangle in front of any franchise that may have a piece that Denver needs.

Overall, I give Linas Kleiza a B- for the 2007-08 season. He siezed almost any and every opportunity he could and made some big strides along the way.


Go Nuggets!

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