Draft Q + A: Mindaugas Kuzminskas
Lithuania’s next big thing.
When the NBA released the early entry candidates for the 2010 NBA Draft, you probably skimmed over Lithuanian prospect Mindaugas Kuzminskas’ cumbersome name. But (mostly) every player had a reason for declaring. Kuzminskas is no exception — kid can hoop. Erildas Budraitis, who pens SLAMonline’s ever popular Euroleague Weekly Review, got in-touch with the 6-9 small forward. Below, Erildas translates their conversation. It’s a story of ashes to high classes… that is, if he continues on his momentous tear.–Ed.
Mindaugas Kuzminskas, a potential 2010 Second Rounder, was an average Lithuanian second league (NKL) player just two years ago. Now his career looks like a dream –- Kuzminskas may soon earn a spot on both the Lithuanian National Team and the NBA. Impressive, right?
This season was the best of the 20-year-old small forward’s career. First of all, Kuzminskas was an unofficial MVP in Lithuania first league (LKL) (17 points, 6 boards in 27 minutes). Moreover, he played great in Eurocup (14 points, 44 percent 3FG in 28 minutes) and was the youngest player this season to receive a week’s MVP prize. Kuzminskas won the LKL All-Star game MVP, and it looks like he’s not planning to stop his Odyssey.
Of course, Kuzminskas’ much-improved game hasn’t gone unnoticed by NBA scouts. The Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat, Portland Trail Blazers and the New York Knicks are all interested in this talent, and they already sent their scouts to Lithuania to see how this guy looks on the court.
SLAMonline sat down with always smiling Mindaugas (by the way, his nickname is “cheez’as”) to talk about the upcoming NBA Draft, his career in Europe and future plans.
SLAM: Just two seasons ago, you were a bench player for KM SSK Perlas Vilnius, which back then played in the second Lithuanian league (NKL). Now you are one the leaders on the first league‘s (LKL) BC Siauliai. How did you manage to develop so quickly and what was your key to success?
Mindaugas Kuzminskas: With KM SSK Perlas Vilnius, I didn‘t feel like I was a part of the team. I was loaned to them and maybe the coaches looked at me like I was a stranger. On the other hand, maybe I didn‘t play the way I could. My situation was tough and I wasn’t getting a lot of minutes, so I started to work with the athletic trainer before every practice. I became faster and now I can jump higher. That helped me over the next few seasons. Of course, other important factors are having the right mindset, coaches, few injuries and good fortune.
SLAM: This LKL season, you averaged 17 points in just 27 minutes, and you were unofficially named as league’s MVP. Do you think you are ready to play at higher level?
MK: I would say yes, but at the same time – no. Honestly, before I joined Siauliai, I wasn‘t sure I was ready to play at this level. I just wanted to push myself, to see what I could do. Right now, I want to step forward again, but now it‘s anybody‘s guess how I will do. My aim is to improve my weak points and achieve better and better results.
SLAM: Some Lithuanian basketball talents are leaving their country with offers to play for USA high schools or Universities. Sometimes playing in the NCAA helps to open the door to the NBA. Why did you decide to stay in Lithuania? Did you get any offers to play and study in the USA?
MK: I have an older brother, who also plays basketball. A long time ago he was one of the most promising young talents in the country and then he decided to try his luck in the USA. Unfortunately, his career in the States wasn‘t successful and after one year, he came back. I don‘t want to say the same thing would happen to me, but I also didn‘t want to make the same mistake. I had a chance to leave, but I was sure I wanted to stay in Lithuania.
SLAM: Young basketball player’s always have their idols. What NBA or European players were your favorite?
MK: When I was younger my idols were Michael Jordan, Shaquille O‘Neal and Kobe Bryant. When I grew up I liked the way Ramunas Siskauskas (CSKA Moscow), Dirk Nowitzki and Saulius Stombergas (ex-Lithuanian National Team captain) were playing. I wanted to be similar to them.
SLAM: It‘s known that Blazer and Knick scouts came to see your games. What was the feeling when you knew NBA scouts were watching you?
MK: I didn‘t have any problems. I just prepared for games like always. Maybe something was in my unconscious, but I’m always trying to do my best.
SLAM: Have any NBA teams spoken with you?
MK: I heard some teams were interested in me, but I didn‘t speak with any.
SLAM: In your opinion, are you ready to play next season in the NBA?
MK: Right now – I don‘t think so. I think everything is a progression — from simple to the most difficult. For example, kids after kindergarten don‘t go directly to University. First of all, I want to play in Euroleague and after that I would like to think about playing at higher level.
SLAM: In one of your interviews I read that you made your first dunk when you were 16. Of course, now most of time, you are faster and jump higher than your opponents. But the NBA is an extremely athletic league. Do you think you’d have problems defending the best NBA players?
MK: To avoid that, I‘m working very hard everyday. But stronger isn’t always better. I think strength is important, but it‘s also important to understand the game and think while on the court.
SLAM: Last year you got an invitation to Treviso Reebok camp at the last minute. Do you plan to participate in this camp this year? Maybe you have plans to appear in other pre-Draft camps?
MK: Right now I’m sure I will participate in Reebok camp; I don’t know about the others. A lot of people say it’s very important to perform well at camps like this. In my opinion, it’s of the same importance as every game during the whole season.
SLAM: Which factors would impact your decision to stay or withdraw from the NBA Draft?
MK: Everything will depend on my chances in this Draft. I’m ready to stay in this year, but of course, if my chances are poor, I will withdraw.
SLAM: At the beginning of the season you signed a long-term contract with Zalgiris Kaunas. Why did you choose Zalgiris and do you have plans to wear Zalgiris’ jersey next season and also play in Euroleague?
MK: I want to test myself at a higher level. The reasons why I picked Zalgiris were the possibility to extend my studies, and the ability to step in right away. This season my play in the Eurocup tournament was pretty good, and I would like to see what I could do in the Euroleague.
SLAM: You know that last summer the other very talented Lithuanian player Donatas Motiejunas, another NBA prospect, decided to leave Lithuania and go to Italy. Did you get any offers from other Europeans clubs? Why did you stay in Lithuania?
MK: I had some options, but education is also very important for me, I’m studying economics at the University right now. I didn’t see many advantages to playing abroad, so I decided to stay.
SLAM: Imagine that you play in Europe for the whole your career. Would that be OK for you?
MK: My goal as a basketball player is to be as good as I can. If I was capable of playing just in Europe – I’m OK with that.
SLAM: This upcoming summer will be a special — you got an offer to join the second Lithuanian National Team. What does this mean to you, and do you have any idea when you might join the main National Team?
MK: My dream is to play for the Lithuanian National Team and an offer to join the Second Team is like a small part of my dream coming true. I don’t know what will happen in the future, and I can’t know if I will ever make it to the main team. I hope that one day I will be a member of the National Team so that I could fight for my country.