Every time I see Linas Kleiza play a basketball game for the Lithuanian National team I can’t help but imagine great success for him in Toronto with the Raptors. When the Raps first signed Kleiza he went to the World Championships and blew away the competition (19pts, 57% FG, 7.1 reb). He was easily one of the better players in that years tournament.
He could not turn it into a successful NBA campaign however. He struggled to find a spot in the rotation, got injured and wasn’t the same when he came back.
This summer at the London Olympics Kleiza once again served notice that he is a dangerous, dangerous player. He led his Lithuanian squad to a near ‘upset of the century’ against the eventual Gold medal winners from the States. He had 25 points in that game matched up against some of the best defenders in the world.
He finished the tournament averaging 13.8 pts on 44% shooting and 6.3 rebounds. These are numbers that Raptor fans everywhere are hoping to see this season with a much improved Raptor squad, especially the improved shooting percentage.
Raptor fans have never known which Kleiza would show up on any given night. There were nights during his Raptors tenure that mirrored the performance he had against the United States in London, but most were underwhelming at best. He has never shown the same strength and consistency that he has for his Lithuanian National team with the Raptors.
Still Kleiza could offer the Raptors something this year. There is no clear starting small forward. It is possible Landry Fields gets moved there or Demar Derozan is placed in that spot, but that remains to be seen. Kleiza, as one of the only natural small forwards on the team, could make a case for himself with a strong camp. If not he would be a potent weapon off the bench. That is, if his percentages are closer to his international averages.
The battle for Kleiza will be in finding consistency. For whatever reason he has not been able to string together solid games in the NBA. The effort he showed consistently for Lithuania has never materialized in Toronto. If he were able to bring the performances he showed during international play to games at the ACC he would easily make a case for more playing time.
As of now it remains to be seen what his eventual role will be.
He presents coach Casey with more questions than answers. He is usually a strong shooter, not a great defender, but rebounds well and can shift over to the 4 if the coach wants a smaller lineup on the floor. Is he better in the starting five or off the bench? Is he a viable option at the 4? Can he be the hot shot three point shooter the Raptors have been lacking on offense?
He hasn’t seen his shot fall consistently over the last two seasons, could not find the right role on offense, isn’t a great defender and his contract might be better used as an Amnesty case. Though at the MLE he is not too much of a salary burden to keep around.
He has an opportunity to play a big role with this team on and off the court this season. His experience and relationship with Raptors rookie Jonas Valanciunas will come in handy for certain. He will likely be asked to take on more of a leadership role with this, much younger Raptors team. He also presents coach Casey with a veteran shot off the bench. Kleiza plays in the flow of the game and knows not to force things. He could be a great weapon off the bench to lead a strong second unit.
Whether in a starting role or off the bench, Raptor fans can only hope Kleiza can finally carry over his Olympic success to the NBA season. The Raptors could use his talent this year.
The Zan Tabak Herald