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Andrei Kirilenko waited a decade to arrive at this point in his life. Now, he is indulging in the freedoms that his new world presents.
The Russian-born Jazz forward recently became a United States citizen. And after enduring preseason trade rumors that linked his name with Denver's Carmelo Anthony, the 10th-year player who has spent his entire NBA career wearing a Utah uniform is at the midway point of his final year under contract with the Jazz.
"I've never been in this position. I've never been a free agent," Kirilenko, 29, said. "I've never been free, had free time to decide. It's going to be a new experience for me. I'll see how it goes, what I have."
He added: "A lot of things depend on the Jazz and what's the Jazz plans about me."
Kirilenko signed a maximum deal with Utah in 2004, inking a six-year, $86 million agreement that has been a blessing and a curse. But the 6-foot-9, 235-pound Kirilenko has been in fine form in 2010-11, staying healthy and consistently filling up statistical lines as he plays through the final year of a contract that is set to pay him $17.8 million this season.
Jazz guard C.J. Miles said that only Raja Bell rivals AK as being the "glue" that connects Utah's team. Veteran center Mehmet Okur believes that Kirilenko is indisputably one of the key veteran leaders who make the Jazz tick on the court and off. And general manager Kevin O'Connor sees Kirilenko as both barometer and X-factor when his performance peaks, Utah soars.
"He's a real key to our team," O'Connor said. "And he's really somebody that we have to have on the court for us to play well."
Keying Kirilenko's consistency has been his increased comfort. He praised the Jazz's improved chemistry and teamwork, while acknowledging that his respect is at an all-time high for everyone from Utah coach Jerry Sloan to the team's front office.
"We had ups and downs in the past. But right now we've been together 10 years," Kirilenko said. "I know their best side, their worst sides; they know mine. We try to deal with it, and we kind of find that golden middle."
Which is exactly what Sloan said about a player he has often pushed but ultimately respects.
"Andrei's a wonderful guy. There's no question about that," Sloan said. "He's been a good guy to deal with over the years. We haven't always seen eye to eye. But he's always tried to do the best he can when he plays, and that's all you can ask anybody to do."
As for his newfound American freedom, Kirilenko conceded that his decision to become a U.S. citizen was as much practical as it was personal. He retained his original Russian citizenship, and would not have canceled it if he had been forced to choose between his former country and his new one. Kirilenko also acknowledged that his decision to earn permanent living status in America has no bearing on his basketball-related future, which could see him do everything from re-sign with the Jazz, play for another NBA team, go to Russia during a long lockout, or simply take a break from the game that he has played since he was a young teenager.
Kirilenko's ties to his native land still run deep. He vividly recalls Russia when it was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and remembers the weight of the Iron Curtain.
"I still think I'm Russian in my heart because I was raised there," Kirilenko said. "I'm going to die Russian."
But he is just as proud to earn a paycheck playing basketball in the U.S. He and his wife enjoy Salt Lake City, while his children "are going to be Americans."
Kirilenko was 100 percent, full-blooded American on Saturday. While Okur, a longtime teammate, friend and neighbor, fired away about which NFL teams were going to win their divisional playoff matchups, Kirilenko blocked the attack and held ground.
AK knew the game. He understood how important home-field advantage is during January, which teams were on the rise, and who appeared ready to fall. And as he and Okur trash-talked through yet another pre-practice shootaround, it was clear that Kirilenko was right at home.
"Before I even came to America I hadn't talked about American football, because I have no clue what it is," he said.
Andrei Kirilenko file
Position • Forward
Year • 10
Vitals • 6-foot-9, 235 pounds
2010-11 stats • 11.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.2 blocks, 1.1 steals, 44.3 percent FG, 36.8 percent 3-pt, 79.4 percent FT
Career numbers • 12.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.0 blocks, 1.4 steals, 46.9 percent FG, 31.1 percent 3-pt, 76.4 percent FT
From • Izhevsk, Russia
Unknown future • Kirilenko is in the last year of his contract with the Jazz, which is set to pay him $17.8 million this season. He faces a variety of possibilities: re-signing with Utah; being traded; signing with another NBA team after the season; playing in Russia next season if there is an NBA lockout; or taking a break from the game.
Jazz at Wizards
P At Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.
Tipoff • 11 a.m. MST
TV • FSN Utah
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Jazz 27-13, Wizards 11-27
Last meeting • Jazz, 103-87 (March 27, 2010)
About the Jazz • Utah has won three consecutive games and is tied with Oklahoma City for first place in the Northwest Division. … The Jazz play their next five contests on the road, highlighted by a four-game, six-day East Coast journey. … All 13 players on Utah's roster are expected to be healthy for Monday's game against Washington.
About the Wizards • Washington has won just four of its past 12 games, but the Wizards have captured three consecutive victories at home. … Guard Nick Young is averaging 29 points in his past three games. … Rookie guard John Wall ranks fifth in the league in average assists (8.9), and is posting 15.3 points and 3.6 rebounds per game.
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