Mantas Kalnietis and Bojan Popović – what do these players have in common? Not much if you take away the fact that they’ll be one of the most interesting match ups in Lithuanian basketball this year as both players will occupy the point guard starting positions for two biggest rivals in Lithuanian sport. Lietuvos rytas and Žalgiris, Žalgiris and Lietuvos rytas, whichever way you put it, had a chance to compare one to another in the Acropolis tournament taking place in Athens where Lithuanian and Serbian National Teams met.
Excuse me, up or down?
If you’re a Žalgiris fan, you’d better start worrying whether winning the battle for Kalnietis against Benetton was all that good. The form that Mantas is showing is truly abysmal – he can’t control the team making one silly mistake after another and it looks like he lost the expected place as a starter in the National Team to Andrius Mažutis, not much of a competition, is it? And if you take into consideration that people that are not into basketball so much have recognized Mažutis, who’s 28, for the first time only this year, well it’s not comforting to Mantas Kalnietis to say the least.
Looking on the other side of the court, Bojan Popović was once a very intriguing player a couple years ago for Dynamo Moscow and FMP Belgrade before that, but the bench-time in Spain didn’t help. He is a very solid player, you can’t take that away from him, but Popović hasn’t got the hype that once surrounded him. But you’ll see, he will have a good season, he will rise from the ashes and he will get a good contract coming out from this year. I mean it, remember my words.
Smart, strong, reliable – these are the three synonyms for Bojan Popović in the game against Lithuania opposed to the sloppy, messy and sloppy again for Mantas Kalnietis. Popović comes out as a clear winner in this showdown, Lietuvos rytas should feel happy after seeing the tuesdays game. Even though the Serb player often played away from the ball with other guards having a lot of possesion with the rock, he looked confident when he did have a chance to touch the ball. And having three players on the court at the same time on the giving side of a pick and roll is always in handy… I’d like to make a mark that Popović was very good in defense, the players that he guarded (Kalnietis, Mažutis and Jomantas for some time) didn’t even have a smallest chance to do something important, the only problem I saw was the 4 personal fouls, but most of them were to prevent easy baskets after mistakes from teammates. You could say his offense is one sided as 10 of 12 points came in free throws, but I guess the ability to draw fouls really is his game. And this wasn’t neither the first, nor the last time he managed to get fouled 9 times. One more advantage to Bojan is that his dribble is much more confident than Kalnietis’ shoulder-high bouncing of the ball and his always-springy feet either going up or down. The Lithuanian point guard didn’t stand a chance to control the game at some point of his 15 minutes spent on the court – when the game needed to be slowed down, he rushed too much, when Butautas was expecting some up-tempo basketball during the fast breaks, Kalnietis slowed down for no plausible reason. But the problem probably is in his age, at 23 Mantas has a bright future if he can keep improving like he did through the last season. If you ask me, Lietuvos rytas will have an advantage at the point guard position this year and Popović’s defense and experience is going to be the key factors here.