Just ask Missouri freshman Linas Kleiza. He will tell you that he is an emotional player who relies on passion on the court.
“Oh, I definitely am emotional,” he said. “That’s what gets me going out there.”
The Tigers hope to see plenty of passion in their season opener against Oakland University at 5 p.m. on Saturday in Auburn Hills, Mich..
Kleiza struggled offensively, like the rest of the team, in the first half of last week’s exhibition game against the Asheville Altitude, scoring one point in 10 minutes. The second half was a different story, for Kleiza was able to get going early. He shot 4-of-5 and made a 3-pointer that spurred a 27-14 run that secured the Missouri victory. He finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds in 19 minutes.
Kleiza said it was all a matter of fitting in and adapting to his new teammates.
“It’s a big deal getting comfortable,” he said. “I’m getting better at that.”
Kleiza looked comfortable in July when he starred for his native Lithuania in the World Junior Championships. He averaged 29.1 points, which led the tournament, and eight rebounds, leading his team to second. Kleiza became accustomed to being the focus of the game plan and the opposition’s defense. Now he doesn’t have to worry about either.
“This is the first time in Linas’ life that he’s not playing the whole game,” coach Quin Snyder said. “It’s about learning not to pace yourself. Linas is going to get more and more comfortable. I was happy for him; you could tell he was a little more relaxed (in the second half).”
The adjustment from being the best player in high school to being a face in the crowd in college can be a difficult one. Playing time decreases, touches go down and the best shot opportunities often dry up. Kleiza continues to adapt here as he grows more comfortable with his teammates.
Kleiza and senior forward Travon Bryant have battled in practice, each trying to prove he deserves the most playing time. They split time in the exhibition season, each averaging 20.5 minutes. Bryant said he sees the competition as an opportunity to improve, not as a threat to his minutes.
“We don’t look at it that way,” he said. “We just know we have to go out and do the things coach wants us to do. That’s what competition is all about. Whoever is out there playing defense and competing is going to stay out there.”
The similarity of their games has been a benefit for the team, Snyder said. No significant strategy change is necessary when either enters the game.
“Travon can hit a couple of big 3s for us when we need a bucket, and Linas is capable of shooting from the perimeter,” he said. “The thing that they feed off the most is defense and rebounding. They’re both getting second-chance opportunities off (center Arthur Johnson.) When you’re playing with AJ, there are lanes to the bucket and opportunities for open looks. They’re both learning to be patient about letting their offense come to them.”
Snyder has emphasized that his team’s newfound depth at the forward positions allows them to go all out all of the time.
“It’s a new situation for us, having a collective identity rather than just an individual identity,” he said. “In the past, when we haven’t had depth, we’ve paced ourselves. Knowing that the guy coming in for you will do his job (is important.) Our big guys are really feeling that.”
No matter the role Kleiza plays this year, the coaching staff has lofty expectations for him. At the end of Kleiza’s career, Snyder hopes to have molded one of the best big men in school history.
“My goal for Linas is not just to be a great player in his country, but to be a great player in the world,” he said.