IRVINE, Calif - Nikoloz Tskitishvili just wanted to play basketball.
Ironically, for the 2002 No. 5 overall draft pick to do that, he’d have to leave the NBA.
“You’ve got to play basketball if you love the game,” Tskitishvili said. “As much as I enjoyed being in the NBA, the basketball stuff didn’t click in a lot of ways…I sat down with my family, we talked with Mike D’Antoni, who was my coach, and we talked about this. I talked and said, ‘I think it’s time for me to go and develop myself.’”
On his fourth different team in four NBA seasons, the trajectory of the former lottery pick’s career wasn’t going as he’d planned. So, rather than struggle through it, Tskitishvili did what few others in his position would.
He left it all behind.
Now, at 32 years old, after playing in six countries on 11 teams in a nine-year span since leaving the United States, Tskitishvili’s journey has taken him back to the NBA. After a few Summer League stints, he’s finally getting his chance again, this time at training camp with the Clippers.
Tskitishvili’s a native of the country of Georgia, which sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. As it would turn out, Tskitishvili would get plenty comfortable with both continents.
The 7-foot center’s basketball journey would first take him to Spain, where he played in Sevilla. Then he went to Italy. The traveling was just beginning, as future seasons would see him head back to Spain, then to Greece, then back to Spain again before playing in Iran in 2011.
Tskitishvili could tell basketball was getting bigger in Asia.
“I said, OK, I’ll go there and I’ll try,” he said. “One year is not going to hurt me. When I went there, I really liked it, Asian basketball. In Iran, we won the championship, we won the Asia Championship, the WABA League.
“From there, I went to Lebanon, I played in Dubai, I went to China for a little bit. Last year, I was in Lebanon again. I grew up with basketball. I feel like I’ve been in the toughest places, which helped me a lot. I’ve experienced everything.”
Tskitishvili spent 2011-15 playing on teams in Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon. While it would be a culture shock to some, Tskitishvili said he could draw similarities to where he grew up.
“Even though Georgia is not Asia – we’re part of Europe – it’s still close,” he said. “Not really the same, but there is something. A little bit the food is the same, there is something in the language. It’s not the same, but there are some words that are similar.”
One thing that becomes clear talking to Tskitishvili is his ability to adapt to his surroundings. He doesn’t seem out of place donning a Clippers jersey in an Irvine gym, just as he didn’t feel out of place traveling the world to play on a multitude of teams.
When people would question him why he went to play in Iran, he made it clear how much he enjoyed his experience in Tehran.
“Outside of Tehran is tough, but Tehran, the capital city, it’s nice, man,” Tskitishvili said. “People enjoy their lives, they have fun, they like basketball there.”
He had similar feelings in Lebanon, recalling nothing but fond memories.
“When I went the first time, I thought I was in Paris, in Beirut,” Tskitishvili said. “Great life, nightlife, and for family and kids it’s great.”
That last part has become especially important to Tskitishvili, who now has two daughters – a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. At every stop throughout the world, Tskitishvili would bring his kids along. He said he couldn't leave his "No. 1 fans."
He’s grown considerably from the teenager who was embarking on his NBA career in 2002, in a place unfamiliar to him, barely able to speak English. The pressure that was on him was immense, but in his mind, the pressure he faced afterward was greater.
Tskitishvili feels more mature, smarter, stronger and more experienced than he was during his first NBA stint, when he averaged 2.9 points and 1.7 rebounds per game.
“I see the game differently, especially when you play in those countries like Lebanon, like Iran and Dubai, it’s not less pressure than here,” Tskitishvili said. “Over there, what makes it tougher is if you have one bad game, they kick you out. One bad game, you’re out of the team, maybe two bad games. I was doing my best to not get cut and doing it every day. I knew I had to work hard to not get cut.”
That wasn’t a problem by the end of his journey, as Tskitishvili was averaging a double-double in Lebanon and catching the eye of teams that at one point considered him one of the NBA’s top prospects.
Tskitishvili said his experiences helped him not only as a basketball player, but as a person. They showed him life from different angles, and they allowed him to play basketball, which is all he wanted in the first place.
With his skills refined in a variety of environments, Tskitishvili feels ready to prove himself once again in the NBA.
“I enjoyed playing so much in every city,” Tskitishvili said. “I was like, ‘OK, I’m really enjoying this.’ I’m just enjoying what I do. With this mentality, I got better. All of a sudden, I was like, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ I think I’m ready for it.”