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NBA Sunday: Timofey Mozgov’s Rising Star

On both ends of the court, Timofey Mozgov is proving to be a difference-maker for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

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Some big men—like Greg Monroe, Jonas Valanciunas, Andre Drummond and Nerlens Noel—enter the National Basketball Association with fanfare and flashing lights galore.

And others—like Timofey Mozgov—seem to fly in under the radar, quietly and in stealth.

During the 2010 NBA Finals, back when Kobe Bryant was doing his best to defeat the Boston Celtics and get one for his thumb, the balance of NBA front offices were trying to determine where prospects like Eric Bledsoe, Avery Bradley and Greivis Vasquez would land.

Meanwhile, quietly, a Russian-born 24-year-old Mozgov was quietly impressing the pants off of the New York Knicks. Since then, slowly but surely, he has impressed the pants off of everyone else in the league. Everyone including his current teammate, LeBron James.

“[Timofey] is big for our team,” James told Basketball Insiders recently. “He’s our anchor defensively and he protects the rim,” he said.

What was most stark about James applauding Mozgov’s defensive efforts is the fact, back when Mozgov signed with he Knicks in 2010, he was regarded as a light-footed center who could flourish on the offensive end. That he is now being regarded by the best player on the planet as his team’s defensive anchor is indicative of the monumental leap that the Russian has made over the past five years.

Now, it’s time to wonder whether he might leap out of Cleveland and into another NBA city this summer, because as a free agent, Mozgov should command a hefty salary on the open market. He, along with Harrison Barnes of the Golden States Warriors, are two of the more interesting free agents to be, if only because they seem to be amongst the last core members of the top teams in the respective conferences to hit free agency.

To Mozgov’s credit, though, he’s not focused on free agency in July, the center’s only concern is getting better each day.

In a brief encounter with Basketball Insiders, Mozgov spent more time discussing his experience with his teammates and coaching staff in Cleveland and his pursuit of becoming a great player than he did of his impending free agency. This shows tremendous maturity, which is only outdone by what many believe is still the tremendous upside that the 29-year-old still has.

* * * * *

“It’s good that you’re talking about, but I’m not talking about it,” Mozgov said when asked about his upcoming free agency.

With a chuckle, Mozgov quickly brought the conversation back to what seemed most important to him: improvement.

Although our conversation was fairly brief, I recalled the first time I met Mozgov shortly after he signed with the Knicks. Like Andre Drummond and scores of others, watching them grow, seeing them mature and recognizing the positive changes, for me, is always a sight to behold.

Back in 2010, Mozgov’s English was broken. His eyes often glazed over when a question contained more than five words and it was easy to see that he both lacked understanding and confidence. That was natural given a move around the world, though.

Five years ago, having met him, I wondered if he would survive life in the NBA. Now, five years later, I had my answer.

Mozgov had fully bloomed. And now, he was basking in the sunlight.

“Every night, I just do the same thing… I just try to be myself, that’s it,” he said. He shrugged his shoulders and spoke in a matter-of-fact tone that was both confident and stern. Serious as he seemed, though, he still found time to share a few jokes with both me and a nearby Mo Williams.

“What’s it like to play with you, Mo?” Mozgov asked rhetorically before agreeing that everyone in Cleveland has helped make the game easier for him. So that’s why, even with a hefty payday on the horizon, he simply remains committed to being himself.

Mere survival is no longer the goal. It’s time to thrive.

So yes, Mozgov thinks about his journey and his progress, and he figures that he simply needs to continue to play his game, because who he has been thus far has been quite good.

Still, the future, has dominated the conversation since the center reportedly turned down an extension from the Cavaliers this past summer. So, as he continues to progress, it’s only natural to wonder what July 2016 will hold for someone who will be one of the more coveted players on the open market.

He no longer has any discernible weaknesses, though he is still searching for consistency. Mozgov has always had good hands, good speed, impressive athleticism and great timing. For him, now, it’s just a matter of repetition and opportunity—not the dollars.

“[My free agency] doesn’t change anything for me right now because whatever I do, I gotta do with my heart,” Mozgov said.

“What I did last season, I gotta do this season, too. If you want to be a good player, there should be nothing changing. You’ve just gotta work hard.”

And everyone in Cleveland agrees that this is one thing that Mozgov knows how to do.

Before the lights come on and the building fills up, he can routinely be found on the floor. Turnaround jump shots, hook shots and 15-footers, galore. As he continues to develop his offensive repertoire, even James has noticed his increasing effectiveness.

“He’s a great rim runner,” James said when asked about what makes Mozgov a difference maker. “He finishes at the rim, with both lobs and dunks, or with his ability to score, period,” the four-time Most Valuable Player said, paying homage to the fact that Mozgov has been working hard to develop the ability to create his own shot.

“He gave us a huge boost… and we’ve needed every minute from him,” James said when asked how the arrival of Mozgov has helped change things for the Cavaliers.

After arriving to the team in Janaury, Mozgov averaged 10.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks over the course of the final 46 games of the 2014-15 season. It was, however, his performance during the 2015 NBA Finals that has helped to make him a household name.

Out of necessity, Mozgov saw both his minutes and usage increase substantially, and he emerged as one of the key players who helped the injury-plagued Cavaliers take the Warriors to six games before succumbing. Mozgov recorded three double-doubles during the Finals, including a 28-point, 10-rebound effort in Game 4 of the series.

I was there in the aftermath of Game 4, and I can clearly remember Mozgov shrugging off of his dominant performance as if it never happened. Brought to the podium and allowed to individually bask in the spotlight, his answers were short and tight. He paid maximum respect to his teammates and, most importantly, to his opposition. The Cavaliers, after all, had just lost the game and squandered an opportunity to take a 3-1 stranglehold on the series. I remember sitting in the press conference and thinking to myself that it takes a true team player to not take the opportunity to pat himself on the back, not even once, after playing the best game of his life on the sport’s biggest stage.

Back when he began his professional career in St. Petersburg in 2004, Mozgov dreamed of one day playing in the NBA Finals. And after getting a taste of the glory that could await, the next goal is to win one.

That has everything to do with why he is simply focusing on the task and season at hand, and not thinking too far ahead.

“You can’t really explain how it feels,” Mozgov said of playing in the 2015 Finals. “Being there, being around, when so many eyes are looking at you,” he remembered. … “Every move is covered, and it’s funny, because every move outside the court is covered, too. It’s crazy.”

Mozgov compared his own personal experience with being on hand for Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. Before signing with the Knicks, Mozgov—who was staying in Dallas—spent what he referred to as “all of the money I had” to buy a ticket to the game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Watching Bryant win the championship on his home floor is an image the big man has never forgotten. It is one that has inspired him.

Since then, Mozgov dreamed of one day playing on that stage. Now that he has, it’s time to move on to the next goal; winning on it.

As the NBA’s salary cap and luxury tax thresholds are set to increase over the foreseeable future, Mozgov has certainly opened up eyes across the league and created a bit of a demand for himself. So long as he stays healthy and continues to be a plus-contributor for David Blatt, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, you will continue to hear his name. And years from now, when you look back at 2010’s prospects, among names like John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and Avery Bradley, another name may warrant mention.

Timofey Mozgov, from Russia, with love…

And with a star that continues to shine brightly.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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