Credit: AFP – Scanpix
Credit AFP – Scanpix

For Mindaugas Kuzminkas, the situation in Zenit Saint Petersburg after the first eleven EuroLeague games looks simple.

"Since our team is doing pretty good, players are happy also," he tells BasketNews from the city that is widely regarded as Russia's most beautiful and picturesque.

That's probably one of the reasons that he's smiling almost all the time. Just a few minutes before joining Zenit's last practice session ahead of the game against Panathinaikos, the Lithuanian forward who spent two seasons in Russia with Lokomotiv Kuban doesn't look to be in a hurry. Things are going well for him and his team, which now boasts an 8-3 record.

He is averaging 3.8 points, 1.6 rebounds, and 4.5 PIR over 11 EuroLeague games (9.5 minutes of playing time) this season. His numbers indicate that the Vilnius-born player has definitely seen better days, especially while in Andalusia, but who cares?

After all, he even got to watch the recent Greek derby in its entirety.

"Yes, I watched all of it online," he promptly responds before going into some detail.

"I think it was a weird game because Olympiacos controlled it pretty well, but we saw what happened at the end. Of course, that crazy atmosphere is something amazing. Most countries in Europe, even in the world, should be jealous of players performing in that atmosphere."

Nevertheless, Kuzminskas didn't expect the outcome at all. His former teammate at Unicaja Malaga (2015-16) and AX Armani Exchange Milan (2018-19), Nemanja Nedovic, was the man that decided the game scoring at will in the fourth quarter in an unexpected turn of events.

"Olympiacos have some very good players individually, but Nemanja Nedovic took everything into his hands and won that game. I played with him in Malaga and Milan. He's a great guy. I'm happy that even though he's struggling with injury, he managed to show his level this time," the Lithuanian forward says.

Speaking of the Serbian scoring guard, Kuzminskas informs that they keep in touch, albeit not being very close friends. "We don't talk every day, but when one of us has had a good game or got a big win, we text each other."

Credit Luca Sgamellotti/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

2-pointers this season

Points made: 18,6
Accuracy: 54,8%
Place in standings: 14
Record max: 22
Record min: 15
Most made 2FGs: Jordan Loyd

EuroLeague fans and followers remember that Nedovic had an equally great performance when Armani blew out Olympiacos 99-75 three years ago. Now, Kuzminskas will meet with him again as an opponent. What is there to expect from him and Panathinaikos in general?

"The last double week wasn't the best for Panathinaikos. They lost both games, which they could have won as well. So, the win against Olympiacos is like a breath of fresh air for them.

They have a lot of good players individually, but also new guys who need to adjust to the team and to each other. So, they are a dangerous team," he underlines.

It's interesting that Olympiacos played a Greek League derby against Panathinaikos after almost three years. For a player who signed with the Reds in July 2019 only to be released in November, it goes without much saying that he wishes he could have been part of a clash between the Greek "eternal rivals".

"That was one of the small goals for me, but unfortunately, I didn't have the chance to feel that because we were out of the Greek League that year, and we hadn't faced them in EuroLeague as long as I was there," he recalls with regret.

Credit AFP - Scanpix

Zenit are on a five-game winning streak following an unimpressive start to the season when they were 3-3.

"I cannot say we had a slow start. We lost to Barcelona, Real Madrid and CSKA, which I think is pretty OK," Kuzminskas argues.

"Of course, you want to win against those teams, but sometimes you win, others you don't. Our streak is nice, but it's a long season, and if you're going to relax, a lot of teams are ready to punish you, and you can find yourself at the bottom of the table.

So, we need to forget about every game as quickly as possible and focus on the next one," he adds.

Game by game, the team's current version looks capable of equalling or surpassing what the previous one achieved last year. For the record, they ended up first in the VTB regular season and made the EuroLeague playoffs. Kuzminskas says he would be more than happy if his team was to repeat one of the same.

"It would be great for us. If we could achieve all that, it would be amazing. For most teams, it's really painful to lose their main point guard. We lost Kevin Pangos, but we're doing a good job as a team. We have a lot of good players. Of course, we're waiting for Shabazz Napier to come back as soon as possible."

"Making up for Napier's absence has been made possible thanks to the great job of our coaches. They're preparing us really well for every game. All we got to do is accept the information and do things the right way," Kuzminskas continued.

Kuzminskas had his best games with Zenit against Anadolu Efes and Olympiacos, against whom he scored a combined 27 points. However, excluding those two games, his playing time has never been consistent nor has it exceeded the 14-minute mark.

The 32-year-old forward believes that accepting and embracing his role goes with the territory, namely Zenit having a complete and high-quality roster.

"Sometimes, it all depends on me and how I start the game. Sometimes, it's part of the game plan. We have 15 almost equally good players. So far, the coach has never been mistaken.

Whichever player he has decided to put on the court, he has played well. So, one part of my role is to accept that sometimes I will be playing more and others I will have less time," the Lithuanian forward explains.

In this sense, one could safely assume that this season with Zenit somewhat brings to Kuzminskas's mind his NBA stint with the New York Knicks. In his own words, one of the basic rules of anyone trying to make it in the NBA is to be "ready to play whenever coach asks."

Is it the same in Russia? Kuzminskas welcomes the question with a smirk while pointing to the difference.

"Well, from one part, yes. Timing is more or less the same, but in the NBA, every game doesn't matter so much as it does in Europe. Here, you're not allowed to make mistakes that might lead to your team losing.

In the NBA, everything is more relaxed. You can lose six games in a row, and everyone is going to be positive. In Europe, it's not like that," he utters.

Credit Basketnews/D.Repečka

Right after the game at OAKA, he will be joining the Lithuania national team for the second qualifying match against the Czech Republic in Opava on November 29.

For players, having to miss out on their national teams' games can be cruel as there is little to be done for them to avoid this conflict of interests as it has turned out. Sometimes, they are the ones who must persuade their clubs to release them ahead of the qualifiers.

"We as players cannot do anything," Kuzminskas reminds. "Of course, I would love to be able to join the national team from day one and participate in practices and games. As players, the only thing we can do is accept the tough flights and the tight schedule - that's it," he responds.

However, he still acknowledges that this system with conflicting schedules is neither good for the players nor the national teams.

"The best players have to be present. We're not strong enough to do something, but I believe that sooner or later, an agreement will be reached between the two parties."

Credit BNS

The background regarding how Kuzminskas became available for Lithuania is rather simple.

"I talked to the national team coach, and he said that they want me, even for the second game. Then, I talked to coach Pascual and to our GM. Both of them were really flexible and let me go. So, I have to thank them for letting me help my country."

Following two excellent seasons (2014-16) with Unicaja Malaga, Kuzminskas made the transatlantic journey to join the New York Knicks. A legendary franchise, which nevertheless is not deprived of peculiarities.

One that particularly stands out is fans notoriously booing their draft picks, most notably Kuzminskas' friend and former teammate Kristaps Porzingis.

That didn't prevent the Lithuanian international from becoming a fan favorite in no time. In fact, he's still getting messages from Knicks fans sometimes.

"When I post something on my social media. It's funny that they still remember me," he notes.

"Since then, all the team has changed, and none of the players that used to be my teammates is there anymore. OK, Derrick Rose is still there, although he left in 2017."

Kuzminskas goes on to point out that although his term with the Knicks was short, the taste left in him is rather sweet.

"Overall, I had a lot of fun. It was a great experience. Unfortunately, that time was not long enough, not as I wanted it to be. But I will always be thankful. If I could turn back time, I would make the same decision again. I would still sign with New York," Kuzminskas notes.

Being thankful for one's past is always important. But identifying some situations that could have turned out or been handled differently is something that Kuzminskas doesn't shy away from, either.

"Maybe when we separated our ways with New York, I did some mistakes which didn't help me stay in the league. I didn't sign a contract with one team, waiting for another team to sign me.

But that didn't happen, and that was it! I came back to Europe right after that. I don't want to mention the name of the team. Maybe I will do it sometime in the future.

I'm still happy with my career and the fact that I can do what I love at a high level," Kuzmiskas said before signing off, still smiling.

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Panathinaikos Athens
Zenit St Petersburg
15 Position
Field goals
4 Position
12 Position
4 Position
17 Position
15 Position
15 Position
16 Position

Teams leaders

Daryl  Macon
16,9 PTS
70% 2P%
44% 3P%
Jordan  Loyd
13,9 PTS
61% 2P%
36% 3P%
Georgios  Papagiannis
7,4 REB
5,5 DREB
1,8 OREB
Mateusz  Ponitka
5,3 REB
3,7 DREB
1,5 OREB
Daryl  Macon
3,0 As
2,1 TO
27 MIN
Jordan  Loyd
3,8 As
1,9 TO
26 MIN