Sunday, August 7, will go down as a special day in the history of Knick fandom. When the Lithuanian national team takes the court against Brazil (1:00 p.m. ET, on NBCSN), it will be the first chance for many fans to catch a glimpse of recently-signed forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas in action.
What can we expect from the newest Knick in these Olympics? In an effort to learn all about this mop-topped mystery man, I talked to journalist Donatas Urbonas (@Urbodo), who is currently in Rio covering the Lithuanian national team.
From what I noticed during the exhibition season, Kuzminskas sometimes started and sometimes came off the bench. Do you think he will start in the Olympics? How would you describe his role on this Lithuania team?
I think he'll be a starter. Lithuania is unique team. There are no big superstars like in France or Spain (Pau Gasol, Tony Parker). There are no 100% guaranteed starters at the SG-PF positions. And Kuzminskas has a very strong opponent in SF position -- one of the best defenders in Europe, Jonas Maciulis.
So Kuzminskas’ place in the starting 5 is completely a game-time decision. It depends on what opponent we play against. Every player on Team Lithuania is equal and can have different role in every game.
However, I think Kuzminskas will be a starter or at least 6th man.
He seems like a bit of a late bloomer (he went un-drafted a few years ago). Has he noticeably raised his game for the national team in recent years, or is he the same player he always was?
You're completely right. He is a late bloomer, as he was in high school. Because of late maturity, he even thought about giving up basketball and starting to be basketball ref! Unbelievable! But he was growing year by year.
Firstly he matured on a weak Lithuanian club team. Then he player for the Lithuanian champions, and later he got to play for Unicaja Malaga, in Spain. And now he’s become one of the most promising players in Europe. It's very interesting what's going to be next. There is still a lot of potential in his game.
What was the reaction among Lithuanian fans when he signed with the Knicks? Were they surprised, or did they consider him a no-doubt NBA player?
Lithuanian fans were surprised. We knew he has some interest from NBA clubs, but we didn't think it would be a real offer. Especially from New York, which was never mentioned as possible club for Kuzminskas.
So we were surprised, but we were very happy. He is one of the favorites, if not the No. 1 in Lithuania, because of his character and unique style of basketball. Lithuanians kind of worry about his future in NBA. But we will see what happens. Lots of people thought that Unicaja is his ceiling, but he showed that he has no ceilings.
Knicks fans always worry about defense. How do you think he will handle defending the kind of athletes he will see if they face Team USA?
Kuzminskas’ defense is a mystery. He is neither a great defender, nor James Harden on defense. He has a strong body, he is fast, he is long and really not a very comfortable opponent to play against. The NBA will be a good test to see where he is on defense. But hey, if he was Bruce Bowen-type of defender, he wouldn't have been playing in Europe until now. Offense is his strength.
What is the expectations for this Lithuanian team heading into the Olympics? Are the home fans excited about this group?
Lithuania is unpredictable these past few years. We'll play without Donatas Motiejunas and Linas Kleiza, so it's hard to say that medals in our pockets will be a no-brainer. But this team is unpredictable in a good way. We don't have a lot of superstars, but we have been achieving great results in European and World Championships the past three years. So don't be surprised if we will make semifinals in Olympics, especially after very solid preparation for Rio.
Go Lithuania! Go Knicks! Go Knickuania!