DENVER — Three years ago almost no one thought Linas Kleiza would be here.
The 6-foot-8 Lithuanian joked with NBA superstar Allen Iverson, who stood four lockers away in the Denver Nuggets locker room.
“Do you do anything but score?” Iverson asked Kleiza.
“Yeah, watch the tape,” Kleiza said back.
Every game day, Kleiza gets to slip the baby blue Nuggets jersey over his head. He gets to swish 3-pointers that bring 18,000 fans to their feet. From the Sarunas Marciulionis basketball school in Lithuania to the Mile-High City, Kleiza has surprised. This season, Kleiza is finally silencing the doubters that he has had at every point on his journey. The doubters who said he would never be an impact player on an NBA team. The doubters who said he was crazy for going to the United States to pursue his dream of playing in the best basketball league in the world.
Three years ago, then a sophomore forward at Missouri, Kleiza declared for the NBA Draft. Even after scoring 59 points in two games in the Big 12 Conference Tournament, some questioned why Kleiza would enter the draft since he was projected to go in the second round and not receive a guaranteed contract.
“I wasn’t nervous,” Kleiza said. “I was ready for the next step in my life.”
Portland took Kleiza with the 27th pick in the first round then promptly traded him to the Nuggets.
Kleiza is the fifth leading scorer on the Nuggets averaging 10.8 points and 24 minutes a game. Kleiza is living the dream that he’s had since he was a boy living in Kaunas, Lithuania.
Kleiza backs up one of the best forwards in the league, Carmelo Anthony. But when Kleiza plays, he brings an aggression shown by few Nuggets, who are often criticized around the NBA for being lackadaisical. In the video montage before Nuggets home games, Kleiza is shown fighting on the floor with three Detroit Pistons for the ball. Often, Kleiza ends up defending players two to three inches taller than he is. But Kleiza is not about be pushed around. He fights back.
“I get good position on them and fight,” Kleiza said. “I just bring a lot of energy right now.”
When removed from the game March 27 against Dallas, the frustration showed in Kleiza’s body language as he flopped himself in a chair on the sideline and aggressively grabbed a towel and put it around his neck. He slouched in his chair. When Kenyon Martin slamed home a dunk that brought the Pepsi Center fans to their feet, Kleiza rested his hand against his cheek like a bored high school student in class. But Kleiza says he has accepted coming off the bench to provide a lift for the team.
“That’s my role on this team, and I have to take the opportunity given to me,” Kleiza said.
While at Missouri, Kleiza played inside and was expected to score and rebound. Kleiza routinely scored double-doubles for the Tigers. With the Nuggets, Kleiza has transformed his game with an emphasis mostly on scoring. Saturday against Golden State, Kleiza matched up against Al Harrington on the perimeter. Kleiza received a pass and blew past Harrington and put it against the glass for an easy layup. Kleiza has improved his driving game from earlier in his NBA career when he was primarily a sharpshooter from 3-point range coming off the bench.
“He’s a guy who comes to work every day and leaves the gym better every day,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “He plays with a recklessness and a courage that we like. His weakest area of his game is probably his defense, but he gives you the intangibles of energy and effort.”
To get in extra practice, Kleiza often takes a cab before the team bus leaves to visiting arenas. While Kleiza has been slow to develop into a starting NBAplayer, he has shined at times, including scoring 41 points in a game at Utah earlier this season. Often, Kleiza’s best games come when he is playing on national TV, earning him the nickname of “TV L” from his teammates.
“Whenever those games come, I definitely notice that we’re on TV,” Kleiza said.
When the Sacramento Kings offered Ron Artest around the trade deadline this year, the Nuggets refused to trade Kleiza.
“For us at that time, he was probably playing his best basketball of his life,” Karl said. “We found it necessary to keep him because he probably has another one or two steps to go.”
When the Nuggets’ season ends, Kleiza will go to Lithuania like he does every summer to visit friends and family. He also trains with the Lithuanian national team for two months every summer. This time it will be to prepare for his biggest competition yet: the Olympics.
“Representing your country is an honor,” Kleiza said. “The Olympics are a special thing and something you want to participate in.”
Kleiza’s dream has always been to win a gold medal playing for Lithuania. That goal could become reality in China this summer after Lithuania finished third at EuroBasket, the European basketball championships, last summer.
There are still doubters, though, who think winning a gold medal with a small european country isn’t possible.
As always, Kleiza refuses to be swayed.
“We won the bronze medal the last three Olympics before Greece and we got fourth there,” Kleiza said. “We love our chance, we’re going to bring the best team we’ve ever had.”