The Knicks are anxious to show the Garden crowd their most intriguing off-season pickup. And, no, it’s not Amare Stoudemire.
Russian import Timofey Mozgov debuts tonight alongside Stoudemire and hopes to live up to the rave reviews by teammates and coaches alike. Although Mozgov is gaining valuable experience playing with Stoudemire, the 7-foot-1 center said he’d actually rather go against the franchise player.
“Of course it’s good playing with the [first] team and Amare,” said Mozgov in better-than-expected English. “But for me, I think it’s better to play second team and play against Amare [in practice] because you can learn more.”
Mozgov, who has played pro ball since 2004, will get plenty of learning opportunities tonight if Shaquille O’Neal starts for the Celtics.
“I am worried, but we’ll see what’s going to happen,” he said with a sheepish grin.
Head coach Mike D’Antoni said he’s not really worried about Mozgov physically but said there’s something to be said about making your Garden debut, against Shaq, no less.
“Well it’s against Shaq and he could get clobbered and get killed and run back to Russia,” said D’Antoni with a laugh, when asked about Mozgov’s psyche heading into tonight’s game. “He has confidence but will have to learn how to handle playing, what I’m sure is a big hero of his, in Shaq. We’ll see how responds to him.”
D’Antoni added that although Mozgov has attracted his share of foul trouble so far, he’s confident he will adapt.
“He could get into foul trouble, so he has to watch that. But he could do that coming off the bench, too,” said D’Antoni, who said his starting five will also include Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, and Stoudemire. “He’s a really smart player. He’s 7’1 and runs the floor extremely well.”
Perhaps other than culture and language barriers, officiating barriers could be Mozgov’s biggest obstacle.
“I need to be cool-minded and be smart,” Mozgov said pointing to his head when asked what he needs to do to stay out of foul trouble. “In Europe I can set screen and push and [be physical]. But now I get two or three fouls and can’t turn because I usually [like to] turn [on screens]. Here I have to stay still and don’t touch nobody.”
D’Antoni said Mozgov has picked up the system extremely well and lauded him for his high basketball IQ.
“We show him film [on how to set NBA screens]. He’s a very fast learner,” D’Antoni said. “We’ll see what happens in the next five, six, seven [pre-season] games. But it’s mostly just him overplaying his pick-and-roll. He probably picked up three offensive fouls last game. But he plays hard and he’s going to get some fouls, which is OK. He’ll have to adjust to NBA officiating but those are things every player has to do.”
Mozgov agreed and said all will be well if he sticks to the basics.
“Just run, run, run, [play] defense, and work [hard],” Mozgov said. “Get the ball, shoot, and maybe dunk.”
If he does the latter on Shaq in front of the partisan crowd, he’ll immediately be a smash hit in the Big Apple.