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November 28, 2014

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Once declared an NBA bust, Tskitishvili back to prove himself

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Sam Morris

New York Knicks forward Nikoloz Tskitishvili, who was the MVP of the first Las Vegas NBA Summer League in 2004, is trying to resurrect a once-promising career that fizzled and had him playing overseas over the past two seasons.

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New York Knicks forward Nikoloz Tskitishvili goes up to defend a shot by Memphis forward Darrell Arthur during NBA Summer League action on Tuesday afternoon at Cox Pavilion. Tskitishvili had 12 points and 4 rebounds in his 2009 summer league debut, as the Knicks defeated the Grizzlies, 90-86.

The biggest bust in NBA lottery history.

That’s a tough label to shake, but that’s just what Nikoloz Tskitishvili is trying to do here at the NBA Summer League with the New York Knicks.

He was a wispy 19-year-old when Denver selected him with the fifth overall pick in the 2002 draft. Two years later, he led the first Vegas Summer League in scoring for the Nuggets.

Now, however, Tskitishvili (pronounced skit-ish-VEE-lee) is trying to prove that he isn’t the same guy who averaged 3 points and less than 2 rebounds over four NBA seasons.

“I understand that,” he said of that bust label. “From my side, it’s not fair. But from their side, all they want to see is me playing well. They don’t understand what I’ve been through.

“But I can’t blame them. Know what I’m saying? I blame myself. I was young. I was really young. I was 19 and I weighed 209 pounds when I got here.”

The 7-foot Tskitishvili, who now hits 265 on the scales, hit three 3-point shots Tuesday afternoon against Memphis in Cox Pavilion and finished with 12 points in a 90-86 defeat to the Grizzlies.

“A summer league wonder,” said an American agent.

“I saw him hit five or six 3-pointers in one game last season,” said a Spanish scout. “Is he above average? Yes.”

The Knicks play Detroit inside Cox today at 1 p.m. and have three more games on the UNLV campus, all of which are chances for Tskitishvili to prove himself.

The native of Tbilsi, Georgia, is fortunate that Mike D’Antoni is coaching New York.

In the first seven months of 2002, Tskitishvili played for D’Antoni’s Benetton Treviso club that won an Italian championship.

“A great time, one of the best times I’ve had in my life,” Tskitishvili said. “I didn’t play a lot, maybe 10 or 12 minutes a game, but when I played I did well. Scouts were watching. That’s why I was a high lottery pick.

“I want to show him that I can do it, man. I can do it. I love his system and the way he wants to play the game.”

He beams about D’Antoni’s wide-open scheme.

“It’s freedom,” Tskitishvili said. “That’s my game. The pick-and-pop. Running. Three-point shots. I enjoy that.”

D’Antoni said he had a bright future after Denver picked him so high, but Tskitishvili found it difficult to survive in the NBA.

“He kind of got sidetracked,” D’Antoni said.

Tskitishvili played for Denver, Golden State, Phoenix (in a brief stint for D’Antoni) and Minnesota during a lackluster NBA career in which he made nearly $9 million.

But he flourished at the first Summer League in Las Vegas, where he averaged 25.7 points for Denver in 2004.

“I didn’t have a good first year,” Tskitishvili said. “I was weaker and young. That second year, I worked out hard and was in the best shape I’ve ever been in for Las Vegas. I really took it seriously.”

During the ensuing preseason with the Nuggets, though, he broke a thumb. He got sidetracked before he could find a niche with Denver.

The past three seasons, he has played two years in Spain and one in Italy, averaging almost 9 points.

“I have a lot to show people, especially that I can really play in this league,” Tskitishvili said. “I went back to Europe and got a lot of minutes and experience, and I think I’m ready.”

He said he hasn’t spoken to D’Antoni about a role or the future.

“There’s still a long time to go before that,” Tskitishvili said.

D’Antoni knew enough about Tskitishvili to give him a shot.

“I think he’s got something,” D’Antoni said. “It’s got to be a special role, but I think the guy can play. He was 18 years old then. He’s a man now.”

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