From Lithuania to Charlotte: Arnoldas Kulboka Makes Jump to NBA, Signs Two-Way Contract

by Sam Perley

Back on NBA Draft night three years ago, a photo of a much-younger Arnoldas Kulboka wearing a Charlotte Hornets Starter Jacket quickly began circulating on the internet shortly after the then 20-year-old was taken by the organization with the 55th overall selection.

While that particular jacket is likely long gone at this point, Kulboka finally has an opportunity to upgrade his purple-and-teal wardrobe with a real Charlotte Hornets jersey after the Lithuanian officially signed one of the team’s two available two-way contracts earlier this week.

“I’m so happy. It’s one of my dreams coming true,” he said. “It’s a great feeling. To be honest, I didn’t think about [this day] at all the last three years. I’ve just been working, doing my thing in Europe and that’s it. Whenever the front office people here saw I was ready, they just gave me a chance. I’m just ready to play.”

The 6-10, 210-pound forward will also be competing in his third NBA Summer League starting this coming Sunday evening in Las Vegas. In the most recent rendition in 2019, Kulboka averaged 8.8 points on 40.6% shooting (33.3% from three; 8-of-24), 4.5 rebounds and 1.0 assist in four games, which included an 18-point showing against the Chinese National Team.

Originally from the city of Marijampolé towards the southern Lithuania-Poland border, Kulboka got his start in professional basketball at the age of 16 with Žalgiris Kaunas, one of the top clubs in his native country and an annual EuroLeague Championship contender. One year later, he signed with Brose Bamberg in Germany prior to the start of the 2015-16 season.

Two years later while on loan to Italy’s Orlandina Basket, the Hornets drafted Kulboka, who then rejoined Bamberg for the following season. He then inked a deal with Bilbao Basket in Spain’s Liga ACB, arguably the most competitive domestic league in Europe, where he’s been playing since the start of the 2019-20 campaign.

This past year, he averaged 9.2 points on 43.5% shooting and 4.0 rebounds in 33 Liga ACB appearances (23 starts). He notably drained an impressive 65-of-153 three-point attempts (42.5%), a vast improvement in efficiency from the previous campaign (34.9%) and a mark that ranked third amongst the 26 ACB players with at least 150 tries from long distance.

“I just got physical and more mature,” said Kulboka, when asked about his recent growth. “I believe I can bring immediately into the NBA my shooting skills. I’ve spent a couple years in Spain at a high level and I adapted to a new position. I started playing more as a four, a stretch-four. I think a few years back, I played the three. I had never played the four, but the last two years, I’ve played as a four all the time. I think my basketball IQ [is an advantage]. We don’t have as many athletes in European basketball. You have to think much more over there.”
Kulboka has continued developing nicely overseas and while NBA teams are always hopeful draft-and-stash players will make an impact down the line, few actually ever come over to the league for one reason or another. The Hornets extending one of their two-way contracts to Kulboka is a promising sign and likely allots him up to 45 days on the NBA roster with the rest of his time spent in Greensboro for the 2021-22 season.

“Arnie’s definitely gotten better,” said Hornets Summer League Head Coach Dutch Gaitley. “His body and legs look stronger. We’re counting on him to pick-and-pop, shoot the jumper. If they close out on you, attack. We’re working on his defense. We’re switching him and putting him in coverages defensively. I think his basketball IQ is very high. His shot looks very, very good and then naturally as a European player, he’s a great passer.”

Back home, basketball is extremely popular in Lithuania with the National Team having medaled in numerous major international competitions including the FIBA World Cup (bronze in 2010), Summer Olympics (3x) and EuroBasket (7x). To date, Kulboka says his most prized basketball memory was winning a silver medal for Lithuania at the 2016 FIBA U-18 European Championships.

“Basketball is like a religion in our country,” he explained. “The last few years, it wasn’t the best for our basketball team overall in the country. Stuff like this, me signing a contract over here, more players getting drafted, I think it’s a big thing for the whole country.”

Memphis center Jonas Valančiūnas is currently the only Lithuanian-born player in the NBA, although Indiana center Domantas Sabonis, who was born in Portland, represents the country in international competition thanks to his father and Hall-of-Famer, Arvydas, being from there. Counting the younger Sabonis, 14 Lithuanian players have appeared in a regular season NBA game, according to RealGM.com.

While signing with the Hornets is obviously a huge milestone in Kulboka’s basketball career, he’s not letting himself get too distracted from the task at hand heading into Summer League. How he approaches the game stays the same, he says, and now he’s prepared to show the organization and the NBA what he’s capable of doing.

“Nothing has changed for me,” he said. “I’ve played European basketball ever since I started playing. It was nice to be [close to] home. I spent a lot of time there with my friends. I believe we have many players [here] who can create for the others and we just have to space out. I think I’m going to fit in right here and always be ready to shoot the ball. I’m ready to come over and bring what I can do over here.”

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