A native son who returned to Europe in the prime of his career has earned the first post-season award of the 2009-10 Euroleague. Linas Kleiza of Olympiacos Piraeus is the winner of the Alphonso Ford Top Scorer Trophy, awarded annually to the Euroleague player who averages the most points over a minimum number of games prior to the Final Four. It is the only post-season award that does not rely on voting by fans, media or coaches. Kleiza, a Euroleague newcomer this season, is the first Lithuanian player to win the Ford Trophy. He averaged 17.25 points over a total of 20 games this season while leading the Reds to their second consecutive Final Four, although it's his first. Kleiza scored in double figures in every Euroleague game except one so far this season. He was the Regular Season top scorer with 17.6 points on average and ranked second in the Quarterfinal Playoffs with 18.75 points over four games. At age 25, Kleiza becomes the second-youngest player to win the Ford Trophy. Drew Nicholas was 24 when he won it with Benetton Treviso after the 2005-06 season.
"Ι didn't intend to win this award, but on such a good team with so many talented players, it is easier to achieve," Kleiza said today. "Olympiacos has charismatic guards who make my job easier and simpler. It's a big honor for me, but this trophy doesn't belong only to me. It's the result of teamwork and also belongs to all my teammates. This trophy is even more significant because it brings the name of a former Olympiacos player, Alphonso Ford. He was a big part of European basketball and I want to dedicate this trophy to his memory."
Kleiza survived a strong challenge from one of his Quarterfinal Playoffs opponents, Asseco Prokom Gdynia forward Qyntel Woods (16.85 points per game), to win the award. Marko Tomas of Cibona Zagreb (16.4 ppg.) ranked third (16.4 ppg.), Keith Langford of Khimki Moscow Region fourth (15.53 ppg.) and David Logan of Prokom fifth (15.3 ppg.). Kleiza did more than just score at will for the Reds this season. He ranks third in the league in rebounding with 6.4 boards per game and was one of only six players to play more than 600 minutes in Euroleague games this season. Kleiza also scored when his team needed him most, recording his season-high total of 26 points in both Games 1 and 2 of the playoffs against Prokom, both Olympiacos victories. He produced a remarkably consistent season, scoring 15 or more points in 15 of his first 18 games. He also scored in every way, making the second-most two-pointers among all Euroleague players this season and the third-most free throws, while downing four or more three-pointers on three occasions.
Kleiza becomes the fifth player to win the Ford Trophy in six seasons. He follows two-time winner Igor Rakocevic, who took the award while playing with Tau Ceramica; Marc Salyers of Chorale Roanne; Nicholas and the Trophy's first winner, Charles Smith of Scavolini Pesaro. The trophy is named in memory of the great scorer Alphonso Ford, who died of leukemia in September 2004. Ford had a brilliant career in which he was the competition's top scorer twice, in 2000-01 and 2001-02, both seasons with Olympiacos. He subsequently led Montepaschi Siena in scoring as it reached the 2003 Final Four in its debut Euroleague season. The Alphonso Ford Top Scorer Trophy is the first in a series of Euroleague end-of-season honors. Others to be announced shortly include: the Euroleague Best Defender Trophy, the Euroleague Rising Star Trophy for players under 22, the All-Euroleague first and second team, and the Euroleague MVP, the last two to be revealed at the Euroleague Basketball Awards Ceremony on May 8 during the Final Four in Paris. The Aleksander Gomelskiy Coach of the Year Trophy and the Euroleague Club Executive of the Year are decided after the entire season ends.
This Alphonso Ford Top Scorer Trophy, along with his first Final Four trip, is a highlight in Kleiza's short, promising career. Kleiza was already the top scorer at the 2001 European under-16 Championships and the 2003 World under-18 Championships, before playing at University of Missouri. After two seasons there, he joined Denver in the NBA, where he stayed for four seasons, helping the team with instant offense off the bench to reach the NBA Western Conference Finals in 2009. His best individual season came in 2007-08, when he averaged 11.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in 79 regular season games and boosted his numbers to 14 points and 6.5 rebounds in the playoffs. Kleiza regularly represents the Lithuanian national team in international competition. He helped Lithuania win the bronze medal at EuroBasket 2007 and to reach the 2008 Olympic Games semifinals. Kleiza joined Olympiacos last summer and has already led the team the Greek Cup title, the Reds' first trophy since 2002. In Paris, he will try to take the club one step higher by leading Olympiacos to its second Euroleague title.