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Mike D’Antoni’s vote of confidence in Timofey Mozgov’s basketball ability, if not his language skills

Italy Nba Basketball

New York Knicks center Timofey Mozgov goes against Olimpia Milano’s Oleksiy Pecherov during the New York Knicks’ preseason opener against Italian team Olimpia Milano. in Milan, Italy, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Claudio Scaccini)


All basketball coaches play favorites, but Mike D’Antoni -- no stranger to wearing his opinion on his press scrum sleeve -- is a bit more forthcoming with that information than most NBA types. It’s still something short of explicit, but deciphering Pringles’ player-specific quotes doesn’t take much imagination.

Plenty of this year’s Knicks have D’Antoni gushing (Danilo Gallinari, per esempio, is a typical target of praise showers, even if Amar’e Stoudemire may soon give D’Antoni a run for his money as president of the Gallo Fan Club), but he clearly thinks the world of undrafted free agent rookie Timofey Mozgov.

There is one tiny, tiny problem, though. From Marc Berman of the New York Post:

...D’Antoni has already called Mozgov training camp’s brightest light. In the preseason opener, the sturdy center scored a smooth 10 points with five rebounds in 19 minutes. But D’Antoni is still leery of giving him the starting job at the outset, partly due to the language barrier that reared its ugly head in the Knicks’ preseason-opening victory in Milan. “I’m trying to hold down, curb my enthusiasm,” D’Antoni said of Mozgov. “I think he can play. I don’t see anything bad.”

..,D’Antoni even marveled at Mozgov during yesterday’s light practice. “I watched him,” D’Antoni said. “He can shot the ball, nice rhythm. He has a learning curve. But he’s smart. He makes foul shots. His confidence is good. He’s definitely not shying away, attacking the basket.” However, Mozgov, who speaks only a drop of English, experienced a series of defensive lapses but only because he misheard the defensive scheme.

“We changed up our pick-and-roll defense to a zone and over,” D’Antoni said. “He only heard zone. And for four plays, I was like, ‘Why are they scoring?’ He just heard zone.”

Even as the game continues to globalize, basketball doesn’t act as some magical translator. There are the universals -- ‘rebound,’ ‘screen,’ or in this case, ‘zone’ -- but the language barrier that international players face is a very real thing. It prevents international players from picking up play calls on the fly, just as it hinders their development on the practice court and stymies their camaraderie with their teammates.

And in this case, it could end up costing Mozgov a starting job, even if his playing abilities say he’s deserving of the gig. It’s a bummer, but if the Knicks’ big man is as talented as D’Antoni seems to believe, he’ll be jumping center for New York in no time.