Mindaugas Kuzminskas

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Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas offers advice to Ball brothers on Lithuania

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Lithuania is a hoops-mad country.

The Baltic nation has fewer people in it than the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area, yet it has three players in the NBA right now — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total (such as Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis). The country has won three bronze medals in the Olympics ( 1992, 1996, and 2000). It’s Lithuanian league also has been the launching pad for Celtics’ Aron Baynes to make the NBA.

Now the Ball brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo are headed there on professional contracts.

One of those players — the Raptors’ Valanciunas, had advice for the Ball brothers, speaking to ESPN.

“They’re getting themselves into a great opportunity. Lithuania is beautiful country… We have great basketball history. We’re such a small country, but we have many, many great players. Our basketball school is good., so they chose a really good school. They just gotta work hard — it’s all about working. You can be as good as you can be by working. Talent is one thing, but work you put in, that’s gonna show up.

“If they have any problems, let me know. I can help them out.”

Good luck finding anyone around the NBA who thinks this ends well, especially those who know the Ball family. They are sending a college freshman and a high school junior to a small city in a former Soviet bloc country with a very different culture, that will be a major adjustment. The coach doesn’t speak English and his former American players have not spoken highly of him. The Lithuanian league itself has men — far more physically developed than the Ball brothers — and is known for a physical style of play. It’s also known as a league where the players have a reasonably high hoops IQ and don’t like undisciplined players.

But if LiAngelo and LaMelo have any problems, they can call Valanciunas.

Report: LiAngelo, LaMelo Ball have deal to play professionally in Lithuania

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This feels like a publicity stunt. Whatever the under/over is on how long it will last, bet the under.

That said, the two younger brothers of Lonzo Ball — LiAngelo, 18, and LaMelo, 16 — have reached a deal to play for a team in the highest level of the Lithuanian league. The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Jonathan Givony of ESPN (before the signing became official).

LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball are in serious discussions to sign professional basketball contracts with Lithuanian club Prienu Vytautas, sources told ESPN.

The club plans to decide in the next 24-to-48 hours whether to finalize agreements with the two American teenagers, sources told ESPN.

If signed, the franchise has hopes that the Balls – including their father LaVar — could be a marketing boon for the fledgling franchise, sources told ESPN.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports reports the deal is done.

Lithuania is a hoops-mad Baltic country of an estimated 2.9 million people who has three players currently in the NBA — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total, including Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis. You might remember the Lithuanian National Team wearing Grateful Dead inspired uniforms and taking the bronze medal in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Olympics.

This is a country that takes its basketball seriously, and the Balls are a traveling circus and reality show. The Lithuanian league doesn’t have NBA-level players, but they guys they suit up have a real feel for the game and play a disciplined style. This could be a real culture clash, the kind of thing that ends quickly and spectacularly poorly. Here is some insight into the team from FIBA’s Lithuanian hoops writer.

Don’t expect the Ball children to play much, especially not at first.

The pay at this level is reportedly north of $1,500 a month, but that could be higher if the brothers are seen as a draw. With the report of the tight financial squeeze, this is likely a gambit on the coach’s part to boost revenue (in Europe, coaches are the CEOs of the organization, much more akin to the power top college coaches have than an NBA coach).

This is a league where men play and the game is taken seriously, it has produced not only Lithuanian players but Boston Celtics center Aron Baynes played there. This team apparently does not run the (suprisingly standard in Europe) two-a-day practices on non-game days, but their practices are longer and harder than most American versions. There are a lot of quality players — former American college/D-League guys, as well as good Europeans — who would love a shot like this. Who deserve a chance like this. If the younger Ball children do not perform and do not take this seriously, it will turn on them quickly.

LiAngelo Ball had gone to UCLA to play basketball this season, but after being suspended for shoplifting in China, his father LaVar pulled him out of college, designed a “Gelo 3” signature shoe for his son from the Big Baller Brand, and started looking for a professional contract. I’m not sure LiAngelo belongs at this level. As one scout told me last summer, LiAngelo was only at UCLA because Lonzo was a top recruit and LaMelo had a lot of potential. That scout wasn’t sure LiAngelo could stick in Europe.

LaMelo is a generally highly-rated recruit with NBA potential, a guy with crazy shooting range for a high-school Junior and good handles, but scouts had a lot of questions about his defense and most of his game outside of just shooting. LaMelo put up 70 points in an AAU game, but he cherry-picked the entire time, and the sense is there is a lot of that in his game. His father LaVar pulled LaMelo out of Chino Hills High School this season after a new basketball coach said he was going to push his guys to play within a system on both ends. How well LaMelo adapts to a very different culture on and off the court at his age is a big question.

Maybe this works out. Maybe the Ball children are more mature in personality and game than I think, maybe this is the financial boost that Prienu Vytautas needs and it works for them. It’s possible. I just don’t expect it.

Knicks waive Mindaugas Kuzminskas to clear spot for Joakim Noah

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The Knicks didn’t find their desired Mindaugas Kuzminskas trade, so with Joakim Noah returning from his performance-enhancing-drug suspension tonight, something had to give.

New York opened a roster spot by waiving Kuzminskas.

Knicks:

The Knicks might have originally expected to waive Jarrett Jack, who’s on an unguaranteed contract. But they’re 7-2 since making him starting point guard.

With Jack thriving, rookie Frank Ntilikina showing promise and Ron Baker, um, signed, Ramon Sessions appeared to be another candidate to be waived. The 31-year-old hasn’t played well in at least a couple years, and he’s on just a one-year minimum contract.

Alas, Kuzminskas departs.

Though he was just a rookie last year, the Lithuanian is already 28. His $3,025,035 salary lowered his trade value and might cause him to clear waivers.

Still, he plays an energetic all-around game that would really shine if he shoots better. It’s quite common for players from Europe to need a season to adjust to NBA 3-point distance.

I wouldn’t be surprised if an NBA team takes a flier on Kuzminskas, with a waiver claim or signing him once he clears. I wouldn’t be surprised if he returns to Europe, either.

Report: Knicks letting go Kristaps Porzingis’ favorite assistant coach

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There’s a rift between Knicks president Phil Jackson and Kristaps Porzingis.

Porzingis skipped his exit interview in reported protest of the team’s dysfunction. This sure feels like retaliation from Jackson.

Ian Begley of ESPN:

The New York Knicks are not renewing the contract of assistant coach Josh Longstaff, according to a team official.

Longstaff, 34, was well-respected in the Knicks’ locker room, so the decision will likely come as a surprise to players.

Players such as Porzingis, Willy Hernangomez, Ron Baker, Chasson Randle, Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Marshall Plumlee credited Longstaff and fellow assistant Dave Bliss with helping them with individual development. He played the same role in the development of Lance Thomas and Langston Galloway.

Longstaff was the assistant coach who was closest to Porzingis.

It’s hard to evaluate assistant coaches from the outside, and Longstaff wasn’t hired by Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek. There could be sound reasons to let Longstaff go.

But most of those players developed well under his tutelage. There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence he did his job well.

The Knicks can’t reasonably trade Porzingis, who’s one of the few bright spots on Jackson’s record. Without Porzingis, Jackson’s already-shoddy reputation as an executive would be completely shot.

So, this feels like a measured response by Jackson – a message that he can hurt Porzingis without resorting to dealing him from New York, where Porzingis says he wants to be. Follow orders, or your Knicks experience will become even worse.

Of course, that might not have been the Knicks’ intent when dropping Longstaff. But they’ll have to convince Porzingis if they want to repair their relationship with him.

Three things we learned on Thursday: One strong Warriors quarter enough vs. Pistons

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It was an international day for the NBA, with games in London and Mexico City. If you missed it because you were trying to decide what to do with a giant inflatable Trump rooster balloon, we’ve got your back, here’s the big takeaways from the day.

1) When the Warriors play at their peak — even if only for one quarter — it is a thing of beauty. And the Pistons can’t stop it. So far this season, the Warriors are beating teams by a league-best 11.6 points per 100 possessions — the exact same net rating they had last season. But it doesn’t feel the same. Golden State hasn’t played with the consistent focus we saw the last two seasons from this team, they have tended to “flip the switch” more. Of course, two years ago they were just bursting on the scene, and last season they were pushing for 73 wins. This season they are trying to integrate Kevin Durant (which certainly hasn’t always been smooth) and focused more on being right for the postseason. It hasn’t seemed the same, but they are still blowing teams out.

Case in point, Thursday night against the Pistons at Oracle Arena. The Warriors seemed to coast through the first half, then they turned it on in the third and won that quarter 41-19. From there, Golden State coasted in for the win, 127-107. The Warriors ball movement was phenomenal, beautiful to watch, and left the Pistons’ defense scrambling. Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson combined to score 72 points.

Of course, the Warriors are not going to be judged on regular season wins, all that matters is how they play in June. To that point, Golden State has the weekend off, then will face Cleveland at home on Martin Luther King Day Monday.

2) Knicks pick up a needed win at the expense of Bulls. It was the second night of a back-to-back after having blown a late 10-point lead to the Sixers, and Kristaps Porzingis was sitting out with a sore Achilles. The Knicks had lost 9-of-10, and this set up to be another “L.”

So, of course, they beat the Bulls. Comfortably.

This game lacked star power — no Jimmy Butler, no Porzingis — but the Knicks role players stepped up, with Mindaugas Kuzminskas scoring 19 and Kyle O'Quinn adding 12 points and 11 boards. The Knicks seemed to get whatever they wanted in the paint, and that started with Derrick Rose drives.

The Knicks need more wins like this, they currently sit two games out of the playoffs in the East. The Bulls are one back of the eight-seed Wizards. These are both teams where the front office made win-now moves this summer bringing in pricey veterans, and both of these teams need to string together some wins or they will be able to book early tee times this spring.

3) London gets to see the Nikola Jokic show. Mexico City saw the Devin Booker show but a Mavericks’ win. Remember, the NBA makes a healthy chunk of its revenue overseas — broadcast rights, merchandise sales, etc. — so it’s going to keep taking the product to foreign lands when it can. Enter the international slate of games Thursday: Nuggets and Pacers in London, then Mavericks and Suns in Mexico City.

In London, it was the Nikola Jokic show as he dropped 22 points, grabbed 11 boards and dished seven assists to lead Denver to a comfortable 140-112 win. Also, this may have been Danilo Gallinari‘s best game as a Nugget this season, he had 18.

In Mexico City, Devin Booker dropped 39 points for the Suns, but it wasn’t enough in the battle of Western Conference lottery-bound teams, the Mavericks got the 113-108 win behind 23 from Deron Williams.