Mindaugas Kuzminskas is not your typical NBA rookie.
The Knicks small forward will celebrate his 27th birthday on Wednesday, which makes him one of the oldest rookies in the NBA. And when asked Sunday which players have inspired him the most, the Lithuanian small forward listed two whom few NBA fans have heard of: Saulius and Zita Kuzminskas.
Zita Kuzminskas, his mother, played for the Soviet Union and Lithuanian national teams. The 6-11 Saulius played for a short time at Cal Berkeley before returning to play professionally in Lithuania and Poland.
Mindaugas Kuzminskas also was a star in Lithuania before leaving for Unicaja Malaga, a Spanish League team. In 36 league games for Malaga in 2015-16, he averaged 10.3 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.1 assists. But when the Knicks announced that they had signed the 6-9 forward to a two-year, $6-million deal in July, few of the team’s fans knew anything about him.
That could change. In the Knicks’ 119-107 preseason loss to the Boston Celtics on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, Kuzminskas showed that he can contribute off the bench in relief of Carmelo Anthony. With Lance Thomas, Anthony’s top backup, out with a heel injury, Kuzminskas was given 19 minutes of floor time. He responded with 18 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and a blocked shot and shot 7-for-16, including 3-for-7 from three-point range.
“We know he can shoot the ball well,” coach Jeff Hornacek said after the team’s open practice Sunday at the Garden. “He’s got some sneaky athletic ability . . . It’s just a matter of him getting used to the NBA game and speed and guys in this league.”
When Kuzminskas signed with the Knicks, many of the European basketball writers gave him a hard time for going to a team that had a great player at his position in Anthony. Two weeks before the start of the season, however, Kuzminskas believes that practicing with Anthony every day already has made him a better player.
“When I was going to this team, people would say it is bad you’re going with Carmelo,” Kuzminskas said. “But I think it’s a good thing because in practice, I can learn a lot. Defending every day against Lance and Melo and playing offense against them, these lessons are priceless.”
Notes & quotes: A CT scan on Chasson Randle on Saturday night confirmed that he fractured his left orbital bone. He is expected to be re-evaluated by a specialist Monday. Said Hornacek: “Hopefully the doctors can make a mask for him and he’ll be back quickly.”