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Prospect For Knicks Is A Surprise For Russia

When scouting Russians, Wilson acknowledged, he casts a skeptical eye. Too often, he said, they have a poor work ethic and lack mental toughness. It is a stereotype that the Russian national team coach, David Blatt, said stemmed from a rule in the lucrative professional leagues there that requires teams to have two Russians on the floor at all times.

But the back story of Timofey Mozgov, who signed with the Knicks in July, belies that of a typical player in the Russian system, which tends to usher top young players to pro teams and coddle them.

Mozgov, 24, is an athletic 7-foot-1 late bloomer whose performance for Russia during pool play at the world championships has been one of the surprises of the tournament. Coming off the bench behind the former Kansas star Sasha Kaun, Mozgov scored 18 points in Russia’s victory over Greece on Thursday, has averaged 11.8 points over all and has helped lead a Russian team without any N.B.A. players to a 4-1 record.

“I think it’s going to be easier for him in the N.B.A. than in Europe,” Blatt said. “He’s not going to have to be a lead player, and they’ll probably put him in a small area of the game where he has to pick and cut or run the break hard, which he does extremely well.

“Still, it’s going to be a big adjustment for Timofey.”

It is common in Europe for top youth players to sign with pro teams at young ages. But Mozgov said he did not start playing basketball seriously until age 15 when he went to a boarding school in St. Petersburg at the suggestion of a local coach.

“I was playing only in my school, and it wasn’t a school that prepared me for basketball,” he said.

That trip matured Mozgov’s game and also helped him handle his older brother, who he said roughed him around while growing up.

“When I left and studied, and after my year I came back, my brothers couldn’t do anything,” he said with a smile.

Mozgov never signed with a powerhouse Russian team like Dynamo Moscow or CSKA Moscow. He also did not play a lot for his club team, B.C. Khimki. Blatt said that Mozgov did not play much more than 15 minutes a game last year and compared him to a young pilot needing flight time.

“His adjustment will be bigger than most, but his upside is great,” Blatt said. “I’m looking forward to Timofey making the jump. It’s not going to be easy for him. If he works hard and the New York people help him, he’s got a good chance to do something.”

Part of Mozgov’s value to the Knicks is as an athletic big man who can alleviate some of the pounding that Amar’e Stoudemire, their prized free-agent signing, will take in the post. But to trade elbows with N.B.A. centers, Mozgov will need to continue to fill out his 269-pound frame.

Because his most polished skill is his ability to use his athleticism to run the break, it is easy to see how he fits into Coach Mike D’Antoni’s up-tempo system. From his limited time working out Mozgov and seeing him on tape, D’Antoni said he was impressed with his ability to shoot the 15-footer, play pick-and-roll and run the floor. But he called Mozgov’s hands average and cautioned that success in individual workouts and Europe did not always translate to the N.B.A.

“This kid, I’m excited about him; I want to see him play five on five,” D’Antoni said. “But what we saw of him working out, we’re excited. We think he can be really good.”

He added, “He can be a good bookend with Amar’e. I do worry about his defense a little bit.”

Mozgov signed a three-year deal with the Knicks worth about $9 million, but his impact may not be felt immediately. A classic late bloomer, Mozgov will need time to mature in New York.

“He’s very raw, and he needs a lot of work,” said Wilson, the Knicks’ director of international scouting. “It’s unfair to him or anyone else to expect he’s a superstar out of the gate.

“The best thing is if he could progress from a 5-minute guy to a 15-minute guy. If he can warrant being on the floor from 15 to 18 minutes, I think that would be a great first season for him.”
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  Published Date - September 15 2010
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