Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes
By BRIAN MAHONEY AP Basketball Writer
National team duty can sometimes feel like a burden for NBA players, cutting into a summer that already seems too short.
For Andrei Kirilenko, it might have rescued his career.
The Utah forward was unhappy and at times unproductive in 2006-07, the worst season of his career. But he never thought about getting away from basketball for a while, not with the European championships taking place in September in Spain.
Kirilenko ended up winning MVP honors after carrying Russia to a stunning championship and an Olympic berth, and says now that the experience "kind of restored my mind a little bit."
"It was a tough year last year, a lot of disappointment for me," Kirilenko said. "In your mind you start to talk to yourself a little bit."
There were none of those negative thoughts following the Russians' upset of host Spain, the reigning world champion, in the title game. Kirilenko scored 17 points in the victory and made huge news in his home country.
"It's really important for the players, especially who have already been successful individually," Kirilenko said of the Russians' first European title since the Soviet Union won in 1985. "You really think about if I'm good enough, I need to win something with the team, so it's kind of in your head. It's really helped me make my career achievement."
Kirilenko averaged 8.3 points last season, lowest of his career and a seven-point drop from the previous year. He struggled with everything from Jerry Sloan's criticisms to his offensive schemes, but they discussed their differences on the eve of training camp, and the coach says Kirilenko has been "terrific" this season.
"He has a lot of different things he does and we haven't done a very good job probably coaching him the last couple of years," Sloan said. "I think with that he's done a better job this year, and we've tried to do a better job coaching him. He's put in a lot of work."
That's evident on the court, where his stats were all up from last season as he headed into the weekend. And it's obvious in his mind-set. After telling a Russian newspaper of his unhappiness and expressing a desire to leave Utah over the summer, Kirilenko says he no longer lets basketball be his No. 1 priority, and seems more at peace as he refuses to discuss what went on last season.
"Right now I'm changed completely. I feel way different," he said. "I don't want to get back to it, there's a lot of controversy, there's a lot of things which is media created.
"Right now we're playing pretty good. I'm trying to do my best ... so let's keep doing it."
That would be the best thing for Utah's Western Conference title hopes. But Sloan knows better than to guarantee it will happen.
"I don't know what tomorrow brings with anybody," he said. "I don't mean that in a negative way, that's just the way life is. You don't know that about this business then you're going to be shocked when something happens. And I haven't been shocked too many times."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-11-30-07 1805MST