Three decades of unique basketball experiences have prepared Arturas Karnisovas for new spotlight with Nuggets


Arturas Karnisovas glanced out the sun-splashed windows of his corner office inside the Pepsi Center and surveyed the panoramic view that includes an amusement park and a skyline dotted with cranes building a city on the rise.

The NBA draft, the first for Karnisovas with the title of Nuggets general manager, was only three days away. And though he portrayed a deep sense of calm early Monday as he prepared to help put the finishing touches on Denver’s draft plan, the competitive fire of a man with a literal world of basketball experience over three decades bubbled just below the surface.

“I enjoy the draft. I enjoy the adrenaline,” said the 46-year-old Karnisovas, who was promoted to general manager last week after four years as the franchise’s assistant GM. “There are some who dread that, but I enjoy it. The draft is the culmination, the end product of all you’re doing to get to know a player, his character. … My favorite part is when you pick a player and you see him have success.”

With a new title comes a new spotlight that must tilt upward to shine on the 6-foot-8 Karnisovas. The Nuggets are approaching a critical offseason as they attempt to take a leap forward following a 40-42 season behind a young group of players Karnisovas and Tim Connelly, who was promoted by Josh Kroenke from GM to president of basketball operations, have drafted and guided through development since they arrived together in Denver in 2013.

Kroenke, the team’s president, stepped in last week to promote Karnisovas and keep him from potentially leaving for Milwaukee. He was a finalist for the Bucks open GM job last week. Instead, he was calling his family to share the news they would be staying in Denver.

“There was a lot of screaming in the background,” he said. “It all happened pretty fast.”

Though it was a sudden chain of events that elevated him into his new position, the rise Karnisovas has made into a prominent NBA front-office role has occurred over a 30-year career that began with his distinction as the first player from the Soviet Union to play Division I basketball.

“I was 18 years old and didn’t speak a word of English,” said Karnisovas, who only adapted well enough to become a two-time Big East scholar-athlete of the year at Seton Hall.

After helping lead the Pirates to the NCAA tournament in each of his four seasons, Karnisovas embarked upon a professional career in Europe, where he became one of Lithuania’s most decorated players and captured bronze medals for his country in both the 1992 and 1996 Olympic games.

Following a career in which he played in four different countries and was named the European player of the year in 1996, Karnisovas began his chapter as an executive working at the NBA’s league offices in New Jersey. There, he gained a deep understanding of the league’s financial landscape and became an expert on the intricate workings of salary caps, collective bargaining agreements and other business aspects of the sport.

After five years working for the NBA, Karnisovas craved the camaraderie he had developed with teammates, coaches and staff members as a player. He took a job with the Houston Rockets in 2008 as their director of global scouting, putting his vast networks of overseas contacts to work. They are connections that immediately helped him make a mark with the Nuggets when he joined the franchise in 2013, no more so than when he aided the organization identifying and evaluating center Nikola Jokic.

“Arturas has incredible gravitas, not only in the NBA but in the international game,” said Fran Fraschilla, who specializes in covering overseas prospects as an analyst for ESPN. “One of the reasons he’s so well-regarded is he’s been able to be successful at every level of basketball. He was a great college basketball player at a time when international players were just starting to trickle into prominent roles in the NCAA."

“When you look at Arturas’ background as, first, a really good college player and then, for a period of time, one of the great European players … and then to transition back into management at the NBA level, he covers all the bases. His breadth of knowledge and his relationships are second to none around the world.”

It is harder now than ever for countries overseas to keep their best players secret. Technology has provided more opportunities to scout players from afar. Front offices have created more positions centered on evaluating European talent. Still, Fraschilla said, Karnisovas brings an element to the overseas scene other organizations don’t have.

“Information is the name of the game,” Fraschilla said. “When Arturas can pick up the phone and call, let’s say, one of his former teammates who is now the GM of a team in Croatia or in Lithuania or France, that relationship has been cemented for many years. He’s not only going to get a call back right away, but he’s also going to get really good information on a player, not only who he was as a player but what kind of person he is.”

Karnisovas peered one more time Monday toward the cranes before leaving his office and preparing to evaluate the Nuggets’ final pre-draft workout. As always, he had more building to do.

Jack Benoit