Credit: ZUMAPRESS.com Scanpix
Credit ZUMAPRESS.com Scanpix

In three years with the Charlotte Hornets, it has been chiefly a hello-and-goodbye relationship between Arnoldas Kulboka and his boss of North Carolina city. Since Kulboka has been showing up only in the Summer League, the young forward hasn't had many opportunities to meet Michael Jordan. But during that pick-up game in Spectrum Center, the G.O.A.T. had to tell something to the Hornets rookie from Lithuania.

Arnoldas Kulboka

Arnoldas  Kulboka
Position: PF, SF
Age: 23
Height: 206 cm
Weight: 104 kg
Birth place: MarijampolÄ—, Lithuania

It had to be just a casual five-on-five session at Spectrum. However, it's never casual when Michael Jordan is in the building. Hornets' principal owner and chairman was on the sidelines with front office guys, watching their players competing.

Kulboka, the Hornets two-way player, was decent. Once, he made a mistake reading the help on the defensive end. He didn't have much time to figure out the Hornets' defensive schemes. But suddenly, the greatness happened.

"And then I hear Michael Jordan yelling at me that I had to help," Kulboka recalls with a smile. "It was very interesting."

Credit AFP Scanpix

When Kulboka entered Spectrum earlier that day, at first he didn't recognize that Michael Jordan was on the sidelines. A 23-year-old sharpshooter from Igliauka, a small town of Lithuania, wasn't ready to see MJ watching him and the rest of the Hornets playing five on five. 

"Sincerely, I wasn't nervous," Kulboka smiled in an interview with BasketNews. "But for the others, you could feel the pick-up game was different than on Tuesday."

Charlotte's two-way signing earned the Hornets player of the game award Monday night in Vegas. That was not enough to help his team to beat the Sacramento Kings. But Kulboka's 13-point performance tied for team-high on Monday. Some Hornets fans were impressed by how the Lithuanian rookie was shooting the ball and reading the plays. But there was nothing that MJ or the Hornets haven't seen before during the pick-up games.

Individual practices on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Pick-up games on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That was Kulboka's schedule for three weeks before the Summer League action.

The first pick-up game was awe-inspiring for Kulboka. He was playing alongside LaMelo Ball, other Hornets rookies, and sophomores.

"I was impressed with LaMelo," Kulboka told BasketNews. "Not only on the court but off the court too. I've heard in Lithuania people were questioning his character, but here... Yes, he's everywhere. But he's a very good easy-going guy. It just feels good to be around him."

Kulboka quickly found his spot on the court. And he couldn't miss a shot.

"I was even too good. I made every shot," Kulboka was confident.

Jordan wasn't watching that pick-up from the front row that day. But as a shooter figured out later, his boss was happy with Kulboka's performance. MJ emphasized Lithuanian's ability to read the game and good decision-making. That's where his confidence in Las Vegas comes from.

"My teammates understand that I'm a shooter, and they're looking for me. After the first pick-up game, coaches approached and praised me. Others who weren't in the arena also told me they heard I was good. I know what to expect in the Summer League, so I feel ready and confident for it," Kulboka told BasketNews before the Summer League.

Although he hasn't played a single NBA game yet, Kulboka doesn't feel like a rookie with the Hornets.

The 55th pick of the 2018 NBA draft shared the Summer League floor two years in a row with two other players from the 2018 draft class, Miles Bridges (12th pick) and Devonte Graham (34th pick). Charlotte's coaching staff and team personnel also haven't changed much.

"Coach Borrego is very nice. We talk with him quite often. Not only about basketball. He's a very friendly person. And he told me straightforward what they want from me, why they signed me," Kulboka said. "My job here is to shoot. To help the team play a stretch four position, stretch the floor, and do my job.

They want me to shoot, and I know I can do it well. I think it's even easier in the NBA. The court is bigger, and players are more athletic. They penetrate, pass the ball. Of course, it will be harder to play on defense against such athletes. But on offense, it might be even easier.

There's more freedom. In Europe, I had a green light too, but there were some rules... I played all my career with the ball in my hands. Pick and roll, transition game... But in Spain I couldn't. Here they see me as a stretch four, but I can play pick and roll and start the transition offense. There's much more freedom, and sometimes it helps."

Since I was drafted, all the personnel, all the coaching staff remained the same. I've been to Charlotte a few times throughout the years, and it helps me adapt. This team wants to play fast pace basketball with lots of shots. And I love it.

I think I'm ready for this challenge. Most importantly, I need to get a chance. I will be prepared. I think the Hornets might be a playoff team next year."

Will Arnoldas Kulboka be on that playoff team next year? The two-way contract allows him to play up to 45 games with the Hornets. The rest of the time he's expected to spend with the Greensboro Swarm in the G League.

With PJ Washington and Miles Bridges in the lineup, it won't be easy to get the playing time in the NBA.

"We didn't talk about my role in detail. Maybe I will do good in the training camp, and maybe the head coach will want to invite me. But I'm not sure about it since it's my first year here in the US," Kulboka said. "I would like to play for Greensboro too. I want to play. However, G League basketball is way different than in Europe. It's a platform for the players to show themselves, so there's a lot of individual action. I'm not a fan of it. In Europe, there are a lot of rules, game reading, extra passing, etc. So I will have to change my mentality. A lot depends on the head coach if he wants to see me with the ball in my hands or not."

Two years ago, before the COVID-19, Kulboka was solid in the Summer League. He averaged 8.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, and one assist per 19 minutes in 4 games. Now he came back much more vital. In Spain, he gained 6 kilos of pure muscle and felt ten times stronger than before. 

"I'm prepared for this game better. The ACB level is high, and I can transmit that experience to the NBA," Kulboka has no doubts. Last season he averaged 9.2 points, four rebounds per game on 42.5% three-point shooting for RETAbet Bilbao Basket.

"When dreams come true. The first step is done," Kulboka posted on his Instagram after signing his first-ever NBA contract.

Three years ago, one of his photos went viral. It was an 11-year-old boy in that picture, somewhere on Lithuanian beach, wearing Charlotte Hornets jacket. His name was Arnoldas Kulboka. To this day, it's not clear how he got that Hornets jacket. But he already had basketball hopes because the ball was always in his hands, and he was doing well in local basketball school.

Long haired kid with socks up to his knees, was wearing No. 8 because he loved Kobe Bryant and wanted to be like him.

"Step by step, moving forward. In the beginning, it was a two-way contract. Later there will be a guaranteed contract. That's my goal now," Kulboka confirmed to BasketNews. 

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