Linas Kleiza put his name on the global basketball map at the 2010 FIBA World Championships.
The Toronto Raptors free agent acquisition led a longshot Lithuanian team to a bronze medal and earned a spot on the all-tournament team, averaging 19.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
"Times are rough right now back home and the three weeks when we played, the country was happy," he recalled recently. "People were united and were proud to be Lithuanian. That was what made that experience so special."
Basketball's popularity in Lithuania is longstanding. But as a six-year-old, Kleiza dreamed about playing for his national team rather than in the NBA
"My first real memories of basketball were watching our national team play, guys like Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis, we had a lot of good players," he said.
Yet even when those two made the jump to the NBA in the nineties, the league wasn't a consideration for him.
"Those guys made it possible, but with the distance, I never really thought about it, living so far away. But of course you have that dream to play at the highest level."
When a job opportunity moved his parents to America, that dream came one step closer for the reluctant 16-year-old.
"I didn't really want to come over, but my parents made me," he said. "I don't know where I would be if I stayed."
Kleiza went on to become the Gatorade High School Player of the Year in 2003 and played two solid years at the University of Missouri before becoming the 27th pick overall in the 2005 NBA draft.
Now he's a member of the Raptors, who open their season Wednesday against the New York Knicks at the Air Canada Centre.
"He knows how to score, he knows how to put the ball in the basket and he's a good rebounder," head coach Jay Triano said. "He has a very good basketball IQ and understands the game."
Kleiza's versatility is what makes him an asset to the club as he can play both small and power forward positions. With the departure of Chris Bosh, others will be looked upon to score and the 25-year-old Kleiza is a player who can step up in that department.
"When you have guys that can score in different ways, back to the basket, mid-range, three-point shooting, it's just a matter of how you use them in the line up and we will try to use him in all of those ways," Triano said.
While Kleiza's NBA career averages of 8.5 points and 3.7 rebounds over four seasons with the Denver Nuggets don't scream scoring machine, his transition from bench player to starter after the 2008-2009 season made many take notice.
As a restricted free agent, he did the unexpected and signed a $12-million, two-year contract with Greek club Olympiakos.
"I was looking for a big role to expand my game. I wanted to play a lot more and didn't want to go to another NBA team and play 20 minutes a game and just shoot threes," he explained.
Kleiza parlayed that expanded role, taking Olympiakos to a Greek Cup victory while leading the Euroleague in scoring at 17.2 points a game. The Raptors signed him to an $18.8-million, four-year offer sheet this summer and the six-foot-eight, 245-pounder asked the Nuggets not to match it.
Now, as a starter with the Raptors for the first time in his NBA career, Kleiza recognizes his evolution as a player.
"I think I'm just a more complete player," he said. "I do many things more on the court than I used to do. I think that's the biggest difference."
He also has a way of making cliches sound earnest.
"I've got a lot to prove... to people, to myself," he says. "Of course I want to take it to the next level, but I'm looking to help this team in any way I can.
"The team comes first, all the goals I have are team goals. I think if the team does great, all the personal stuff will take care of itself."
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