Manning the Middle: Cleveland Cavaliers Center of Attention Zydrunas Ilgauskas
“He’s the big man in the middle from Lithuania No.11 Zzzzzzzz!!!!!! Zydrunas Ilgauskas” says Ahmaad, the On-court Host/Hype Man for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Affectionately known as Big Z, he is well known for his practical jokes in the locker room and is loved by his teammates and fans, standing 7-foot-3 260lbs has been the center of attention for the last 12 years for the Cavalier organization.
Basketball wasn’t the only sport he played, as a youngster Z loved to play soccer and volleyball. But after a growth spurt he decided to concentrate on basketball. Believe it or not Z started out as a point guard.
Ilgauskas started playing professional basketball for the Atletas Basketball club in Kaunas, Lithuania. He tried to enter into the 1995 NBA draft but broke his right foot and had to withdraw.
Z came back strong and reapplied for early entry for the 1996 draft. Then general manager Wayne Embry pulled the trigger and drafted Big Z with the 20th pick in the first round. Z however broke his right foot again and missed his rookie year.
He was able to come back the following season and was named to the All-Rookie first team in 1997-98 also was the MVP of the Rookie Challenge game. The next few years tested Z’s will as he had broke his left foot a couple of times causing him to ponder retirement at the age of 25.
But Z stood tall through the face of adversity, had his fifth surgery in six years, endured grueling months of therapy and in 2001 was able to get back on the court and show the organization that he wasn’t a first round bust that some tried to label him.
All the hard work paid off as he was named to the All-Star game in 2003 and 2005 by the Eastern Conference coaches. In 2007, had another solid season helping his team reach the NBA Finals for the first time in the franchise’s 37-year history.
Off to a solid start this season, Big Z’s stat line reads 15 points 7.7 rebounds 1.3 blocks in 26.1 minutes a night on 53 percent shooting from the field and 84 percent from the free throw stripe. Also he has added the three-point shot to his arsenal hitting on 4-of-10 attempts this season.
Big Z has been playing some of the best ball in his career thanks in part to LeBron James and also Mo Williams. The Cavs are focusing more this year establishing him in the paint. Also he is able to pick and pop to hit the 18-footer.
Able to hit the open shot on a consistent basis forces centers to cover him. By doing that it creates spacing on the floor for LeBron or Mo to penetrate into the paint for an easier shot.
Big Z’s health is definitely a key if the Cavaliers are to capture a championship. No other big on the Cavs front-line commands the respect that Z does from the other team. He’s not afraid to mix it up in the middle with the likes of Rasheed Wallace of Detroit or Kendrick Perkins of Boston.
Also the addition of Ben Wallace has helped Z clog the middle on the defensive end of the floor. As a result the Cavs are ranked fifth in the league with 6.2 blocks per game.
Big Z just recently became the franchise leader in rebounds passing Brad Daughtery’s mark of 5,227. He also recently stands third in games played 664 passing John “Hot Rod” Williams. Most likely before the season is over he will pass Williams for the all-time lead in block shots as well.
Z has stated thanks to LeBron he has enjoyed playing ball now more than ever in his career and doesn’t know where he would be without him here. I’m sure the feeling is mutual as when the Cavs captured the Eastern Conference Championship in '07 King James sought out Big Z first to give him a hug for all he has endured.
Big Z is a key cog in the success of the Cavaliers this season. Such a key that members in the organization is already making room for No.11 to hang in the rafters of the Q.
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