Where Are the Russian NBA Stars to Match Mozgov and Kirilenko?

Image source: USA Today

For the first time since the Soviet era, there are no elite Russian basketball players in the NBA. There have been thirteen since the 1990’s, providing a constants presence in the elite basketball competition, yet, over the last few years, no Russian players have participated in the NBA Draft.

The most recent to feature in the NBA was Timofey Mozgov, who spent almost ten years in the United States, initially leaving BC Khimki to sign a lucrative contract worth $9.7 million at the New York Nicks. After just one season Mozgov was part of a blockbuster deal that took him to the Denver Nuggets, where he increasingly enjoyed a starring role.

Midway through the 2014-15 NBA season, Mozgov was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he was later joined by compatriot Sasha Kaun from CSKA Moscow. During the 2015-16 season, they became the first Russian players ever to win the NBA Championship. Kaun still earned the honor despite playing just nine games, while Mozgov was the first Russian to feature in the NBA Finals.

During his time with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Mozgov played alongside LeBron James, who now plays a starring role with the LA Lakers, winners of the 2020 NBA Championship, which was the fourth title of his career. Looking at the latest NBA betting on bet365 for LeBron and the Lakers, they are priced at 4.75 odds to repeat that feat again this year. However, it may be some time before the next Russian basketball player achieves that feat in the United States.

Mozgov too had a brief spell with the LA Lakers in 2016-17, before spending his final NBA campaign with the Brooklyn Nets in 2017-18. Interestingly, they are actually tipped as the 3.40 favorites to win the 2021 NBA Championship, although the Russian star will be watching from afar if they do. After concluding his time in the NBA, he returned to BC Khimki, where the now 34-year-old player now competes in the VTB United League and the EuroLeague.

Perhaps the most successful Russian NBA player of all time, without winning a championship, was Andrei Kirilenko. During a playing career that spanned almost 20 years, Kirilenko started out at Spartak St. Petersburg and CKSA Moscow, before becoming the first Russian player to feature in the first round of an NBA Draft in 1999. Picked by the Utah Jazz, where he would spend 10 exceptional seasons.

Kirilenko also represented the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Brooklyn Nets, before being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in December 2014. However, after failing to report with his new team after the trade, he was eventually waived and returned to Russia, joining CSKA Moscow for the final season of his career in 2015. Almost immediately after his retirement as a player, Kirilenko became head of the Russian Basketball Federation.

Following years of decline and controversy, Kirilenko is working hard to restore the image and prestige of Russian basketball. This has involved reshaping the sport institutionally from top to bottom, administratively and financially, while focused on helping to develop talented players. The ultimate aim for Kirilenko during his tenure is to see Russian players in the NBA once again.

Given the determination Kirilenko showed throughout his playing career, plus the improvements he has already made, Russian basketball couldn’t be under better leadership. With continued investment and support at all levels, international success edges ever closer and with it, the chance of players reaching the same status he once did in the United States.