Linas Kleiza was drafted 27th in the first round of the 2005 NBA draft. Kleiza was much bulkier coming into the league as he had played primarily as a power forward at Missouri. Kleiza showed great touch and potential as a small forward in terms of skill set, but needed to re-shape his body and work on gaining the quickness and court awareness necessary to play full time on the perimeter.
Over the past two seasons, Kleiza has really molded himself into a valuable wing player for the Nuggets. While he only played about 8 minutes per game his rookie year, Kleiza showed a work ethic and tenacity that got George Karl
s attention, even earning him a couple of starts mid-year when the team was playing listlessly and needed a wake-up call. Kleizas minutes jumped in his second year, and by mid-season, he was a regular in the rotation.
This season, Kleiza has been a key component to the Nuggets rotation, averaging nearly 23 minutes per game off the bench and contributing substantially to the teams offense as a spot up shooter and finisher near the basket. The Good:
Kleiza came into the league with good potential as a jump shooter (although he only shot 40% from the field and 27% for 3 in his final year at Missouri), but has really worked to increase his range, consistency, and versatility as a perimeter player. Much like teammate Carmelo Anthony
, Kleiza has great size and strength for a wing. Despite his efforts to become leaner and more agile, Kleiza still has a strong wide frame and is physically stronger than just about any small forward he matches up against. He plays with tenacity and energy, which helps to feed the rest of his teammates. His style of play fits in very well with the Nuggets transition attack, as he is very comfortable on the break or in motion half-court sets.
Initially, Kleizas sweet spot was from 17 feet and in, but by year two he had gotten comfortable with the NBA three point line and was hitting at a very respectable 38 percent. That percentage is down a bit so far in year three, but his shot volume isnt particularly high yet, so there is plenty of time for it to come up. He gets his shots off quickly and has very good fundamental form, which he maintains when set and when in motion.
Overall, Kleiza has become much more effective offensively. His decision making on when to drive off his spot up opportunities has improved substantially, and he is hitting his pull-up jump shots at a better rate than in years past. He looks comfortable shooting with a defender close by, and finishes shots very well even under pressure. Kleiza is very effective at finishing near the basket, where his soft touch and powerful frame help him to bull past defenders and put up a quality shot.
Defensively, Kleiza usually knows where to be. He doesnt get caught out of position that often, and he puts in the effort when it comes to trying to stick with his man. Kleiza fights through picks effectively and is good at communicating on switches. His size and mobility make him useful for covering multiple positions, which helps maintain continuity in the team defensive sets. The Bad:
While Kleiza has come a long way offensively, he still has more work to do if he wants to become a player who can be relied on to play 30 plus minutes each night. Despite his improvements off the dribble, Kleiza is still mostly average in that department. He heavily favors his right hand, and is much more effective when he can find a way to get all the way to the basket. Working on his one or two dribble jump shot when going to the left would help to neutralize his defenders tendency to overplay him for right side drives to the basket.
Another area that could be improved on his Kleizas use in post and ISO situations. Kleiza has very good footwork and has shown an ability to hit shots even when off balance or with contact. As a small forward, Kleiza has an advantage over nearly every opponent he faces when on the block. Hes got the ability to shoulder past his man on the face-up and can back down an opponent for a quick spin to the middle or a fall-away baseline shot. In the limited touches he gets in these situations, Kleiza has shown good potential.
Defensively, Kleiza shows his biggest limitations as a wing. While he plays with good energy and awareness, his footspeed is lacking. Kleiza has trouble challenging shooters without giving up the driving lanes. This problem is especially difficult to mask on a team that is as poor defensively as Denver.
Foot-speed isnt the end-all when it comes to perimeter defense, but a slower defender like Kleiza must rely on tenacious ball-pressure with the knowledge that his help defenders will be in position to pick up the driving opponent. Kleiza doesnt play intense perimeter man defense. He is more inclined to get into position and try and react to his opponents moves. Because of this, he gets beat on ball-fakes and counter moves off the dribble that take advantage of his slower reaction time. Outlook:
Kleiza has turned himself into a very competent offensive player and should develop into a starting caliber player over the next couple of seasons. Kleiza already has the ability to start on some teams, but needs a little more offensive diversity to legitimize a starting gig on a playoff caliber team.
If Kleiza can continue to improve his shooting off the dribble and take advantage of his size/touch combination closer to the basket, he has the potential to become a real scoring threat down the road. He is already prone to scoring outbursts because of his fantastic touch and ability to play fast and aggressive. Any further development will rely on consistency first and foremost. Its difficult to gain consistency as a player off the bench whose minutes and shots fluctuate with each game, but Kleiza has made strides every year so far.
As long as Denver has Iverson, Anthony, Martin, Nene and all the rest of their high-priced veterans, Kleiza will a remain role-playing bench contributor. But with age and salary cap issues becoming an ever-increasing concern for the Nuggets, they may be wise to invest some time developing Kleiza for a larger future role. Two or three years down the road, when JR Smith is playing on the And-1 circuit and Iverson is transitioning into a supporting role, Kleiza may have the opportunity to show more.