Kleiza as frustrated as countrymen

Raptors forward Linas Kleiza handles the ball against the Wizards Washington, D.C., Jan. 15, 2011....

Raptors forward Linas Kleiza handles the ball against the Wizards Washington, D.C., Jan. 15, 2011. (JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters)

MIKE GANTER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:07 PM ET

TORONTO - Imagine being one of the biggest names in your country’s national sport. The year you host the European championships in that sport. But you are too injured to play.

Worse, the injury doesn’t affect your ability to move so on the surface you seem 100% fit.

Then try enjoying those European championships while every Lukas, Rokas, and Ugne demands to know why you’re not playing.

That in a nutshell was Linas Kleiza’s off-season. Well that and a lot of solitary rehab.

Lithuania, a true hotbed of basketball, was the centre of the basketball universe for the summer and Kleiza, coming off microfracture surgery on his meniscus was right in the middle of it but unable to take part.

Normally he would have been front and centre on the court like the summer previously where he led a surprising Lithuanian team to a third-place finish at the FIBA world championship. Microfracture surgery, performed last February, took that away from him.

Kleiza is just now getting back into basketball related drills.

General manager Bryan Colangelo said Thursday in his state-of-the-Raptors address that Kleiza was as much as a month and as many as two away from getting back on a basketball court.

Kleiza doesn’t believe it will be quite that long.

“My timetable is mid January or earlier,” Kleiza said Thursday. “Everything is going good so far. The knee is good. It feels good. I’m putting a lot of work in. We’ll see how it goes.”

Kleiza’s return would be a huge lift for the Raptors who are shy on experience and light on depth at the small forward position. Even if Colangelo does bring in a small forward on Friday, that would only give him the addition plus James Johnson.

The sooner Kleiza can get back, the happier he will be.

“There were a lot of questions after the surgery,” Kleiza said. “Now I’m very optimistic. I’m looking forward to getting back on a court and doing what I love to do most.”

Back in Lithuania this summer, Kleiza was thrilled to see the impact hosting Eurobask had on his countrymen.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said. “The country was electric, the fans, it was a very good thing for a small country like ours. We’ve only got 3 million people if that living there but that thing kind of united everyone. It was a big celebration and something like that had not happened in a long time (in Lithuania). It was good, hard to watch, but I was happy for my team and for the people. Too bad we came in fifth.”

The toughest part was getting his countrymen to understand why he couldn’t take part.

“A lot of people put their hopes in me and I come back to my country and I’m walking around and everything is looking normal,” Kleiza explained. “Nobody understands what microfracture is and what kind of injury that is. People thought I had a little meniscus surgery and I didn’t want to play for my country anymore.”

Nothing could have been further from the truth and if his rehab continues in the favourable way it is now progressing, Kleiza should be on the court with no explaining to do when the Lithuanian team plays the last chance Olympic qualifier this summer.

KLEIZA HIGH ON BIG V

Linas Kleiza sees plenty of promise and a potential pothole in countryman and future Raptor Jonas Valanciunas.

The pothole, however, is none of Valanciunas’ own doing although still threatening.

“He’s a very good kid,” Kleiza said.” He’s a good person but the most important thing is he’s a good player,” he added chuckling.

“He’s got some God-given talent. He’s long with those big arms. He understands how to play basketball.”

Those are the positives. The negative?

“He’s got all the tools to be a very good player, but there’s a lot of pressure on him,” Kleiza said. “People are comparing him to (Arvydas) Sabonis and I don’t think it’s a fair comparison. Sabonis is probably one of the best ever to play the game (in Lithuania or anywhere in the world).

“He was an unbelievable talent, but I think Jonas can be very good if he stays focussed and doesn’t let a lot of things get in his head. In Lithuania right now, he’s No. 1. After the summer he had at the world championships, he just has to stay grounded.”

Good advice from a man who has been through plenty himself.

mike.ganter@sunmedia.ca


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