By J.A. Adande
When Linas Kleiza left the NBA to sign with Olympiakos in Greece it didn’t generate nearly as much attention as when Josh Childress signed with the team last year. No one speculated this was an indication of things to come. Kleiza didn’t spend Five Good Minutes with Kornheiser and Wilbon on “Pardon the Interruption.”
We’re not used to young American players going Euro. But with 83 foreign-born players on NBA rosters to start the season, wouldn't it be expected that they, like the Lithuanian-born Kleiza, would be more likely to leave the Association to go back overseas? And wouldn’t it be more tempting for European teams to sign players who won’t have to make such a big adjustment?
Kleiza has done just fine, averaging almost 21 points in his first three games in the Greek League – or nine points more than Childress.
“It’s been kind of easy for me,” said Kleiza, who went to college at Missouri. “I don’t consider myself an American player. I’m from Europe, I grew up in Europe till I was 16. Then every summer coming back for the Lithuanian national team…the transition has been easy for me.”
Kleiza was a restricted free agent last summer and hoped to re-sign with the Denver Nuggets, where he’d played since 2005. But the Nuggets placed a higher priority on Chris Andersen. Kleiza had interest from the Toronto Raptors, but that fell through after they signed Hedo Turkoglu.
Kleiza wound up signing a two-year, $12 million contract with Olympiakos. He can opt out by mid-July if it looks like there is an opportunity for him to cash in on the expected free agent bonanza of 2010.
But with the American economy slumping, the dollar worth less than the euro and the NBA’s salary cap declining it’s possible we will see other plays coming Kleiza’s way.
“It will continue,” said Kleiza’s agent, Bill Duffy. “I think the top tier clubs in Europe will continue to pay aggressively. You’re going to see more of an exodus.”
“Europe is a great opportunity,” Kleiza said. “Especially these days, when money is so big here and teams are at a high level. Back in the day, players went over to Europe when they couldn’t play in the NBA any more. But now it’s a good opportunity.”