In a recent Adrian Wojnarowski podcast, it was put to a roundtable of NBA executives that the league might be getting “too smart”. The theory was that advances in analytics, cap management and consensus around player evaluation mean that it’s harder to take a poorly-run team to the woodshed in trade negotiations. With even heretofore dumb-dumb teams like the Brooklyn Nets hiring a Smart Guy from the Spurs front office to run the show, maybe there’s something to that.
So, one way for teams to retain an edge is international scouting. There is already a pecking order emerging, with some teams taking that side more seriously than others. Take the Denver Nuggets, for example, early adopters of taking the non-North American part of the world seriously, who drafted future key pieces like Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic at 16 and 41 respectively. Of course the success of Kristaps Porzingis may influence perceptions of European draft picks around the league, although the attitude of casual fans is always way behind front office decision makers on that front.
But you don’t have to use draft picks to scoop up useful players. Signing undrafted free agents can sometimes come up relatively big, as with Jose Calderon, Mirza Teletovic or Boban Marjanovic, but for every one of those, there’s a Luigi Datome or Vitor Faverani who just didn’t quite work out.
One such player who could sign for any NBA team in the summer, and has already attracted attention from a number of clubs is Unicaja Malaga’s Lithuanian forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas.
He’s a 1989-born, 2.05m (over 6’8″) small forward who has been steadily improving each season since he burst onto the scene with Zalgiris Kaunas in 2011/12. This is third season in Malaga, and he’s reached the point now of being one of the most productive players in Europe.
— Austin Green (@LosCrossovers) February 9, 2016
He’s out of contract in the summer, and the question won’t be ‘does he move up a level?’ It’s more like, does he go to the NBA, or does he get tempted with a likely more lucrative and longer term deal with one of Europe’s big spenders in Russia, Turkey or Spain?
Kuzminskas is very much in the Super Role Player mould. Unicaja doesn’t really run any plays for him, something that would be expected to continue in the NBA. It’s pretty well established by now that it’s much harder for the European star in the Navarro and Spanoulis mould to transfer their high usage game to the Association, compared to players who can just translate their secondary status to the higher level.
The video above, from last season, gives a pretty good indication of his strengths. He runs the floor, finishes above the rim, and is frequently the first down the other end in transition. His average of 12.8 PPG in 21 minutes in Euroleague play fits the familiar criteria of not being eye-popping to the general NBA observer, but he’s put up a few 20+ outings this season, and is one of those players who just steadily accumulates points in a low key style until you look at the stats and realise he has 15 in 14 minutes midway through the third quarter.
Statistically, he’s one of the most productive players in all of Europe, while playing in the Spanish ACB – still the best professional league outside the NBA – and Euroleague, the elite continental competition. All he has done this season is put up points efficiently, against a very credible level of opposition.
He scores in a variety of ways – he’s excellent from either side on the low block, spots up for three with a high release point and has a pretty decent pull-up jumper. He creates cheap points from floating around the weak side and crashing the offensive glass.
He’s a threat to come flying in off the baseline for putbacks, and he’s a really smart anticipator of where the ball is going to be. That makes me think that he could probably still get those buckets in the NBA despite his athletic advantage over European opponents not being as pronounced as it would be over there.
He’s still a great size for a three, and not every NBA player has to be Aaron Gordon, athleticism-wise. He has improved his jumpshot to the point where he’s a genuine deep threat, and I don’t think he’d have many problems spotting up in the corner and stretching the floor. Guys who don’t need the ball in their hand to score efficiently are pretty useful in the right situation, and I feel like he could definitely replicate the majority of what he does here.
Still, it’s worth remembering, if you’re only tracking production, that he does rely on finishing opportunities created for him by others. So if his production declines over the rest of the season it’s worth bearing in mind Unicaja has a crisis at playmaker, with Stefan Markovic and Jamar Smith both out injured. The effect that playing with a great passing centre like Richard Hendrix has been great for his production this season, so an NBA team like Memphis that has a passing big who loves to hit cutters from the elbow could work well.
In terms of weaknesses, he’s still not much of a ball handler, and had trouble with getting the ball stripped on the drive versus top Euroleague opponents in CSKA Moscow. He’s not exactly an unwilling passer, but rarely gets the chance to create off the bounce, as that’s not a situation he often puts himself in.
He’s pretty much never used as a screener in pick and roll, operating strictly off the ball. If the ball rotates to him on the perimeter and there isn’t an immediate shot open, he tends to just back up or hand the ball off. He’s comfortable finishing off one or two dribbles, but he’s not any kind of isolation scorer. In terms of an NBA future, team role and situation would be even more crucial than for most non-superstars.
Kuzminskas could absolutely fill in as a role player on a playoff team like the Celtics next season, and I think he could thrive there, in a team culture that values depth of talent throughout the roster and a team-first, ball sharing ethos. Not coincidentally, Boston is one of the teams that the Spanish media has already reported to show interest, and have a Lithuanian connection through their chief international scout, Benas Matkevicius. It goes without saying that the Spurs would be a good landing spot, and there must be more teams in need of a cheap addition on the wing.
If a franchise like Brooklyn, for example, picked him up and expected him to produce in ways he just hasn’t shown off in Europe, that would be a much tougher situation, and I would fear he’d be set up to fail. Whilst most players outside the top tier would be more likely to succeed in a better team, with more talented playmakers, for Kuzminskas it could make or break his NBA career.
On the downside, as a 15 minutes per game, tertiary option on offense, one way to cement a rotation place would be to add value on defense. That side of his game is a lot further away, and would be his biggest weakness in an NBA context.
There’s no question that he puts in the effort, which is always a good start, and he can get opportunistic steals by shooting passing lanes. He’s also not a great 1-on-1 defender, and doesn’t bend his knees and get low to the ground in isolation situations, so gets rocked back on his heels and off-balance.
On the whole he just doesn’t appear to have great ability to react to where he needs to be as the ball moves around, and I’ve seen him involved in a few too many miscommunications off the ball. He tends to be a beat late to start his close out, and his slightly rigid way of moving means he’s vulnerable to a pump fake or straight blow by. That might get exposed more against better athletes at the guard spots in the NBA.
I don’t think he could really survive switched out onto guards if he had to defend fours setting ballscreens in a small lineup. That might lose him a lot of points in the new consensus over positional flexibility in today’s NBA.
Summer League vs Security
But, you’re not getting a fully formed NBA player – unless you’re lucky – on the international free agent market. Kuzminskas offers a tremendous amount of potential as a floor-stretcher and glass-crasher who won’t waste the ball or stop it moving. That has value on any elite team, and his ability to slot into the same role on an NBA squad as he currently enjoys in Europe should also count significantly in his favour.
Where it might be tricky for the front office that wants him, is outbidding the likes of CSKA Moscow or FC Barcelona (to name two top Euroleague clubs at random). He’s a proven quantity at a position which isn’t so deep at Euroleague level, and that could be worth up to $1.5-2 million, net. Choosing between that and a Summer League gig or a one year, maybe partially guaranteed NBA contract might force him to choose between security and the chance to go to the big dance. If he does sign a big Euroleague deal, it seems unlikely that it would include a reasonable NBA out-clause, so it might be a case of now or never.
Some players will make that leap, others prefer the status and often larger financial rewards on offer in Europe. He already received a Summer League invitation in 2015 but between Unicaja declining to allow it (a fair attitude given that he was under contract to them) and preparation with the Lithuanian national team, he couldn’t make it.
Gun to my head, I always bet on the player taking the money, but if Mindaugas does want to make the big leap Stateside, it would be very tough to bet against him turning it into a big success.