Linas Kleiza's Big Night is No Fluke

ESPN's David Thorpe has been a regular part of ESPN's TrueHoop since long before either of those things had "ESPN" before their names. As a guy who works closely with a lot of basketball players, including NBA players, he knows a ton about the game and has been unbelievably generous in explaining a lot of fascinating things to me.

Thorpe's probably best known for training Kevin Martin, but has worked with several other players, including Udonis Haslem, and a certain ... Linas Kleiza.

Thorpe advised Kleiza last season. Thorpe and I talked about Kleiza regularly all year long, and I watched a fair number of Nugget games just to see the things Thorpe was telling my about with my own eyes.

Kleiza scored 41 points against the Jazz last night, and is bathed in a lot sunshine today. But it's no fluke. This is not some random player who has already enjoyed the best night of his career.

Yet people may not have learned his name yet. Consider this blog post from the Salt Lake Tribune's Ross Siler:

Forget having a courtside seat for Kobe Bryant's 81-point game. Forget covering one 1,000-win coach in Jerry Sloan and another on his way in Phil Jackson. Years from now, what I'll most remember from being a beat writer is watching two career-high games from Linas Kleiza.

Kleiza hit five three-pointers on the way to scoring 29 points against the Lakers in a March 2007 victory. That was one of a string of performances that earned him the nickname "TV L" among the Nuggets for the way Kleiza came to life for games on TNT, ESPN, and ABC.

Well, there was no national TV Thursday and Kleiza still embarrassed the Jazz. He had 20 points in the second quarter, 27 by halftime, 36 through three quarters and a career-high 41 for the night. He's a relatively unknown third-year forward but can kill you if he gets hot.

"We felt like he was cherry-picking," Jazz forward Paul Millsap said. "We're not sure what he was doing, but we've got to work on our transition defense."

The Jazz didn't know Kleiza beyond their scouting report, with the exception of Deron Williams, who played against Kleiza both with USA Basketball ("He had like 40 and 17 against us") and when Kleiza played at Missouri in college.

Did Millsap ever imagine Kleiza would be the player to go off Thursday? "Never thought that at all," he said. "We thought it was going to be one of the Big Two. We played a solid game on them. He goes off tonight, so it's tough."

Thorpe agreed to answer some questions about Linas Kleiza:

The story on a lot of blogs, and in a lot of emails today is: who the hell is Linas Kleiza? It's almost funny that this guy no one knows about went off for 41. But it's not funny or surprising to you, right?
Right. Halfway through last season I realized that he had the talent to be a serious contributor for a playoff team. And then he had those two national TV appearances where he got "super hot" and looked like he'd be capable of scoring 40+ if given the minutes and chances.

What kind of stuff have you worked on with him?
Last season he was asked to make an adjustment to being mostly a perimeter player, so LK asked me if I could study his performances and give him feedback on that challenge.

His Denver coaches did an amazing job of spending time with him daily on his jumper andLinas Kleiza his 3 point shot. Linas is a gym rat (a recurring theme of any guy that I help), and those coaches always made time for him.

I noticed that Linas often lacked total balance when he shot the ball, and didn't always hold his follow-through. So he worked all season on that.

Also, I thought it was a mistake to just be a 3 point guy, he's too good in the paint to just stand around outside.

So we'd talk about opportunities to cut, or post, within the flow of Denver's offense.

George Karl does not like him to shot fake guys, so instead I suggested he should wait just a beat longer before driving on guys who were rushing to close him out.

I also was impressed with his pure speed, so we talked about racing the floor instead of running it -- something Denver may do better than anyone (other than Phoenix).

LK was an amazingly engaged pupil, and improved every single month from November to March.

We have talked a lot about Linas, and one thing you have emphasized again and again is how tough he is -- which people probably won't recognize from the highlights, which paint him as yet another Euro who can shoot.
My goodness that kid is tough. As tough as any forward we have in the league. He is incredibly strong and knows how to use his body, thanks to his days as a power forward.

Toughness, as I define it in basketball terms, is having the ability to perform under any kind of pressure, along with delivering your own kind of pressure to your opponents. LK can not be out-muscled, nor can he be mentally intimidated, and he delivers a healthy dose of power to his opponents.

Is he a starter-type player?
Not in Denver, at the "three," for obvious reasons. But as a small "four" in many cities, yes. As a small forward for a good portion of the league, yes again. Who wouldn't want a good shooting "three" man who can run, defend multiple positions, has a great hoops IQ (schooled at Arvydas Sabonis' Academy in Lithuania) and feel for the game, and is a pro's pro while being so young?

I remember when he was drafted (by the Blazers). The story then was that he was a big man. A bruiser. But now he's clearly a wing, right?
I think of him as a great hybrid guy. Can play three positions most nights, small forward, power forward, and some shooting guard, depending on matchups.

I first met him when his family asked me to advise him on what he should do to better his draft chances. I did not train him at all, but suggested he cut 20 or so pounds to show athleticism in the pre-draft workouts.

Apparently he did exactly that, and has managed to keep the weight off to this day. He looks terrific. I think that is why he reached out to me last year when he was faced with a new challenge.

And the Nuggets' organization deserves so much credit for the way they treat the health and well-being of their players. The guys get healthy meals from the team chef every day, and the whole atmosphere is set up for the committed player to continue growing as a player on and off the floor.

He has been amazing in international play -- you told me about the World Junior Championships when he led all scorers, including Andrew Bogut. And he went to college here. How can he still be such a secret?
His name is Carmelo Anthony, one of the top small forwards in the world. If not for him, LK would be starting at "three" for a playoff team. Perhaps he'll start getting more time as a "running four," and we'll see more of him in terms of minutes.

He's definitely a future starter in this league, if not in Denver then somewhere else.

(Photo: Clarke Evans/Getty Images)