|Mantas Kalnietis' play at the back for Lithuania has often outshone that of what was supposed to the linchpin to their success: an imposing front court|
For someone who was supposed to be a weak link in a darkhorse title contender, Lithuania's Mantas Kalnietis has proven his doubters wrong and shown he's a medal-worthy point guard - even if he's not a true point guard.
"I know that everyone is talking about if I am a '1' (point guard) or '2' (shooting guard). For me, it doesn't matter. I like most to play the '1' position," says the 27-year-old Kalnietis.
The Kaunas native came into EuroBasket 2013 with five previous top-level tournaments of experience under his belt. But still, many questioned if Kalnietis had the playmaking abilities to run the point for a championship-calibre team.
"So far we're in the semi-finals. What more can we ask of him?" asked Martynas Pocius.
"He's taken all the pressure upon himself."
Kalnietis has led Lithuania in scoring with 10.7 points while dishing out 5.4 assists-per-game and committing 2.7 turnovers - resulting in a very solid 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio. He is also shooting nearly 55% from two-point range.
In Lithuania's quarter-final win over Italy, Kalnietis shot eight of 12 from the field in scoring 17 points while collecting seven rebounds and five assists in 37 minutes of action.
"He's the key for us. He's our only real point guard. Maybe not even real point guard. For him to play those minutes and carry the team like that is amazing. Without him, I don't think we can play as well as we can," added Pocius.
Kalnietis' doubters will point to him shooting just 20% from three-point range and just 53% from the free throw line.
The Lokomotiv Kuban guard, however, just looks away in annoyance in the mixed zone when asked if he feels he has what it takes to be a leader at the point guard position.
"It doesn't matter who is the leader. One day it's one guy, another day another. Most important is that we can win these games."
|Kalnietis is in regular contact with Sarunas Jasikevicius, who had been Lithuania's premier floor general prior to this championship|
Regardless if Kalnietis considers himself a point or shooting guard, he definitely has learned the position from some greats, including EuroBasket 2011 and 2012 Olympics alongside legendary point guard Sarunas Jasikevicius.
"You can take a lot of experience from him. He was one of the best point guards for 10 years in Europe. I still communicate with him during this championship," said Kalnietis, who has played at two EuroBaskets, two World Championships and the 2012 Olympics.
He also had the opportunity of playing last season at Russian club Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar with Greek point guard Nick Calathes.
"I was very happy to have him with me in Krasnodar because Nick is like a point guard, especially when we were playing together. I like to have two point guards on the court," said Kalnietis.
There have not been any complaints about Kalnietis' play from his teammates in Slovenia.
"Kalnietis is more of a two position, but he fights with heart. He is helping us a lot. Right now without him it would be impossible to play. But he's more of a two than a one. As long as it works for us to win, no problem," said veteran center Robertas Javtokas.
Forward Linas Kleiza said Kalnietis has been more than solid, adding: "He's doing the best he can. It's hard for us to ask him to be a real point guard. But he's doing a good job passing the ball and running a team and scoring. He's just trying to find a balance, and he's doing a good job."
Lithuania coach Jonas Kazlauskas also expressed satisfaction with the play of Kalnietis.
"Until now he has played okay. Sometimes there are good things, sometimes bad. If you play the point guard position, it's important about how the team plays," said the coach.