Timofey Mozgov Approaches Most Important Season of Career in Brooklyn

Timofey Mozgov was acquired by the Brooklyn Nets nearly two months ago. Considering the team’s lack of depth at center, it’s safe to assume Mozgov will have an opportunity to be something more than a pure “salary dump.”

Before becoming a Net in June, Mozgov had an interesting career path. His NBA journey got off to a late start as he played in Russia until his mid-20’s. Due to his outstanding size and physical prowess, in 2010, the Knicks gave Mozgov his first NBA opportunity.

Across the river, Mozgov quickly became a fan favorite. During some of his more notable performances at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks’ faithful would even start arena-wide “Mozgov” chants. He was quickly able to find a niche in Mike D’Antoni’s rotation and even the starting lineup for a handful of games.

This early success in New York was not sustained. Mozgov was dealt to the Denver Nuggets very close to the 2011 NBA trade deadline. He was destined to have to work hard for minutes yet again, but this time, it took much longer.

It would take Mozgov nearly two seasons to find the kind of consistent minutes D’Antoni had given him in New York. Soon after Denver’s coaching staff had reserved a spot in the rotation for the 7-foot-1 big man, Mozgov was dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The difference between Mozgov’s trade to Denver and the more recent deal with Cleveland is that in the latter deal, he was the centerpiece. At the time, Cleveland was looking to make a run at the Larry O’Brian Trophy and needed more insurance in their front-court to do so. Mozgov’s first playoff run with LeBron James and company was unsuccessful, but in June 2016, the Cavs won a historic Game 7 against the Warriors.

Despite not seeing much action in the 2016 Finals, Mozgov still garnered interest in the following free agency period. The Los Angeles Lakers were quick to scoop up Mozgov on a four-year, $64 million contract. Unfortunately, since this transaction taken place, the public has thought of him as a number more than a player. His season was cut short in mid-March despite being in good health when this decision was made. This verdict was likely reached in order to give the Lakers’ young guns more minutes and to allow the 31-year-old Mozgov to rest.

Perhaps Magic Johnson and company were looking to unload Mozgov’s hefty contract at the time and didn’t want to lower his value any further by increasing his risk of sustaining an injury. If this was the strategy, then it certainly paid off, and Mozgov was traded for the third time in his career. This time, he was far from the centerpiece of the trade, as he and young stud D’Angelo Russell were on their way to Brooklyn in exchange for Brook Lopez.

How Mozgov Can Help Brooklyn’s Situation

It’s safe to assume Kenny Atkinson will name Mozgov as the starting center to begin the season unless he chooses to go “small ball to the max” by starting DeMarre Carroll, Trevor Booker or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at the five. However, it’s hard to imagine the latter scenario coming to fruition, given the matchup nightmares it would create.

Atkinson already has a history with the Russia native. He was an assistant coach under D’Antoni in 2010 when the Knicks first discovered Mozgov. Most of my previous player previews have analyzed each player’s prior contributions to the Nets, but in Mozgov’s case, let’s delve into his performance under Atkinson, in addition to his three other NBA stops.

Mozgov has demonstrated time and time again throughout his career that he is one of the NBA’s most explosive rebounders. On any given night, he has the potential to singlehandedly swing the game’s rebounding battle, which can occasionally indicate how the final score will turn out. The first example of this came during Mozgov’s rookie season. On January 30, 2011, he notched 23 points and 14 boards to help the Knicks win a crucial game against the Pistons. Mozgov has since snatched 20 boards or more in a single game on multiple occasions.

Mozgov has also had sustained success on the boards throughout his career. Over seven seasons in the NBA, his total per-36 minute rebounding average is 9.8 boards per contest. Despite not averaging over 26 minutes per contest in his career, Mozgov always grabs a consistent, large volume of rebounds, even when he is battling an injury.

This a skill that should be welcomed on any team, particularly the Nets. Next season, Brooklyn is going to feature several developing perimeter players who can shoot excessively at points. Between D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Isaiah Whitehead and Sean Kilpatrick, many bad shot decisions are bound to be made. Having an interior force who can dominate the glass on any night will provide these inexperienced players with extra possessions and more opportunities to correct their mistakes. This will in turn increase confidence and allow Atkinson to loosen the leash on players who play a sporadic style of offense. 

Mozgov was able to put up some of the best rebounding numbers of his career playing beside a young nucleus. Before being traded to the Cavs in the middle of the of the 2014-15 season, he averaged 7.8 boards per contest while playing with seven teammates who were only in their first or second season. Between this skill and his veteran leadership, Mozgov will no doubt be a favorite among the young guns in Brooklyn.

The Russian center has also developed a reputation as one of the league’s most efficient big men. Granted, this could change as he presumably begins to introduce the 3-point shot to his arsenal next season. However, any player who has played for over five seasons held a rotation spot for most of the time period and still boasts a career field goal percentage of over 50 percent, should be praised.

To put his efficient field goal percentage in perspective, there were only 27 qualified players in the NBA last season who shot over 50 percent from the field. Mozgov often doesn’t qualify by ESPN’s 300 made field goals standard. The last time Mozgov qualified (during the 2014-2015 season), he was given a plethora of minutes throughout the season and ultimately finished fourth in the entire NBA in field goal percentage — knocking down an astounding 55 percent of his shots.

Between put-backs and the occasional post-up, Mozgov’s size plays an integral role in his above-average finishing ability around the rim. In an age where many teams are favoring small ball, the size criteria for a center is much less strict than it was only eight years ago. Mozgov has the unique skill-set of occasionally being able to step out of the paint and knock down a jumper, while having the size to be efficient in the paint. Having a 7-foot-1, 275-pound frame isn’t shabby at all by today’s standards.

Most centers in the NBA either rely on traditional size or another skill, such as supreme athleticism and possessing the ability to stretch the floor. Mozgov has been able to survive for seven seasons using his size to be a scrappy player on both sides of the floor. Ideally, Mozgov will be put in a very special class of centers after reaping the benefits of the Nets’ 3-point centric system. Stretch bigs who possess ideal size and use it correctly (3-and-D centers) are nearly impossible to come by.