But then Kleiza went to Greece for a season to play. He got stronger. He got smarter. He grew a scraggly beard that makes him look tougher.
Like an advertisement for a laundry detergent, Kleiza can claim to be new and improved. But the truth is he is.
This refined version of Kleiza was on display Tuesday in a knockout round game in the World Championship at the Sinan Erdem Dome. The forward scored a game-high 30 points and grabbed nine rebounds for Lithuania in a 78-67 win over China to advance to a Thursday quarterfinal against Argentina, which beat Brazil 93-89 later Tuesday.
Most interesting was that the 6-foot-8 Kleiza, who has developed into more of an inside presence, didn't make a single three-pointer in scoring all those points.
Perhaps there were some knots in the stomachs of those at Nuggets headquarters 6,500 miles away. It was Denver that let the restricted free agent go for nothing when it elected in July not to match a four-year, $18.8 million offer sheet Toronto had put down, and Kleiza became a member of the Raptors.
"The way he plays now, I think yes," Lithuania coach Kestutis Kemzura said when asked if he believes the Nuggets will regret not keeping Kleiza.
Kleiza was a restricted free agent in the summer of 2009 when he signed a two-year, $12 million contract with Olympiakos in Greece. After being the leading scorer in the Euroleague with a 17.9 average, Kleiza opted out of his contract and signed the offer sheet with the Raptors.
It was not for crazy money, although Kleiza will get about $5 million next season, something put in to help dissuade Denver from matching. But because the Nuggets are over the luxury-tax threshold it would have been akin to $10 million next season had they retained Kleiza.
"If (Al) Harrington would have went to someplace else, I think that we would have matched on L.K.," Nuggets coach George Karl told FanHouse in July.
Instead, the Nuggets signed free agent Harrington, who can play both forward spots, to a five-year, $33.4 million contract. But Kleiza, despite being one inch shorter than the 6-9 Harrington, is certainly showing now he's better equipped to play both forward spots.
There were always questions about Kleiza's playing time in Denver at small forward because the starter there is Carmelo Anthony. The Nuggets felt pretty good in July that Anthony would get around to signing a three-year, $65 million contract extension that has been on the table since June.
But now they don't feel as good. If Anthony ends up getting traded or bolts next summer as a free agent, Kleiza could have come in quite handy as a replacement.
"I don't know, but we'll see," Kleiza said Tuesday when asked the Nuggets might regret not matching the offer sheet on him.
Kleiza was a solid player in Denver, averaging 8.3 points from 2005-09, including 11.1 in 2007-08, a season that saw him score 41 points in game against Utah. He was good enough that Denver was ready to sign him to a four-year, $25 million contract extension, less than he got from Toronto, before the offer was pulled at the last instance in October 2008 after the Nuggets closed in on acquiring Chauncey Billups and further bloating their payroll.
Kleiza is a better player now.
"I think I've changed my game," said Kleiza, averaging 19.5 points and 7.2 rebounds in Lithuania's six games while shooting 55.2 percent. "I'm doing way more things that what I did in Denver. I'm not that one-dimension player that was just shooting threes. I think the year that I invested in Europe really helped.''
Kleiza still can shoot the long ball even if he was 0 of 2 Tuesday. He's 7 of 20 in the Worlds, tying him for the team lead in three-pointers made.
"Also, he's smarter now," Lithuania center and captain Robertas Javtokas said of the strides Kleiza's game had made in the past year in addition to becoming more of an inside presence. "He's not forcing the shots. He's looking for that pass. He's totally changed ... I think he's very good ... I know he'll do very well for Toronto."
Kleiza had told FanHouse in July after signing the offer sheet he didn't want the Nuggets to match. He believed the Raptors, who play more of an international style due to all their players from outside North America, would fit him much better than Denver.
"I'm very happy to be in Toronto," Kleiza said. "Right now, it's a great opportunity for me. But it's on me if I'm going to take advantage of it."
One will see if Kleiza will have shaved by the time he dons a Raptors uniform. He said he began to wear a beard while playing Greece and, with Lithuania 6-0 at the Worlds, isn't planning on any trims until after the tournament.
"I lived in Greece for a year so a close shave doesn't do it,'' Kleiza said. "You got to grow it out a little bit."
At least that's the only hairy situation Kleiza has to face these days after nearly two years of uncertainty about his long-term future.
After Kleiza's contract extension offer was pulled Oct. 31, 2008, the day of the second game of the regular season, Karl believed that distraction played a role in Kleiza having an off year, his scoring average dropping from 11.1 to 8.9 and field-goal percentage from 47.2 to 44.7.
There was ample uncertainty in the summer of 2009, when the Nuggets didn't step up with a lucrative contract offer and Kleiza bolted to Greece as an unrestricted free agent. His long-term future continued to be up in the air entering this summer before he became a member of the Raptors on July 16 after Denver's seven-day window to match the offer sheet expired.
"I think that every person, when they have their future secured, it's way easier to play," Kleiza said. "If you've got a job and you feel good about it, of course it makes a difference."
Kleiza feels good about being a Raptor. More will be known about how the Nuggets feel about it after Kleiza runs into his old team for the first time Dec. 10.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson