Was 2011 NBA Draft a ‘genuine’ Lithuanian surge?

Jonas Valančiūnas
Jonas Valančiūnas, DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

The traditional image of an All-American first round in NBA drafts is one that is now fading fast, with at least one foreign talent now standing out from the crowd every year.

Though not consistently so, Lithuania has enjoyed some form of representation at an NBA draft since 1986, when Arvydas Sabonis was drafted 24th overall, and became a one-team man. Remarkably, it would not be until 1995 – a whole nine years after initially being drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers – that Sabonis would debut in the NBA, spending two spells there before leaving in 2003.

The Lithuanians that followed Sabonis experienced very mixed fortunes in the draft. Šarūnas Marčiulionis was drafted to the Golden State Warriors a year later, in 1987, as the 127th overall pick, but he contradicted his low standing by making 363 appearances, in addition to 17 in the playoffs.

Martynas Andriuškevičius, who was picked by Orlando Magic back in 2005, is a case study of Marčiulionis’ opposite. Andriuškevičius was picked 44th overall, but made just six appearances in the NBA.

Jonas Valančiūnas – the breakout star?

If anyone can lay claim to have flown the Lithuanian flag highest in an NBA draft, it is undoubtedly Jonas Valančiūnas, who was picked 5th overall in 2011. As of May 2020, Valančiūnas had made 513 NBA appearances overall, including 43 playoff appearances, with a gradual upward curve in his points-per-game average evident in its steady trajectory.

However, his points-per-game average of 19.9 for the Memphis Grizzlies, as attained in the 2018/19 season, represents a career-high:

Sadly, for all of Valančiūnas’ skills, the online NBA betting odds show a distinct lack of faith in the Grizzlies’ chances of ultimate glory. His chances of winning a championship with the Tennessee outfit personally appear remote, and it seems that only an ever-elusive NBA title will be enough to propel Lithuanian talent into the spotlight once and for all.

What becomes of the undrafted?

Clearly, a low draft is not necessarily a sentence to a mundane NBA career, but a high draft does mostly correlate with a good run in the franchise. Going into the 2020 draft, three Lithuanians in NBA history – Šarūnas Jasikevičius, Arvydas Macijauskas and Mindaugas Kuzminskas – had gone undrafted, but still made NBA appearances.

The truth is that undrafted Lithuanians have generally fared poorly, with the latter two players in that list making a combined total of just 88 regular-season games. Thus, Jasikevičius is presently the only beacon of hope for undrafted Lithuanians that want to play as much NBA basketball as possible. Nonetheless, he had to firstly use European leagues as a proving ground, implying that undrafted non-US players will find it very difficult to convince a franchise in the NBA to take them on.

Notably, it was not until 2005 – a whole seven years after his unsuccessful NBA draft appearance – that Jasikevičius made his NBA debut. He played for the Indiana Pacers and the Golden State Warriors between 2005 and 2007, though it is only for his time with the Pacers that he is truly remembered with clarity:

Valančiūnas’ and Sabonis’ projected impact in 2020

Going into the 2019/20 campaign, Jonas Valančiūnas and Domantas Sabonis were the only Lithuanians active in the NBA roster. With Valančiūnas’ upward trajectory already noted, the Utena-born Center has every chance of moving up the Grizzlies’ rankings – assuming that he stays with them for at least the next year.

As for the second-generation player Sabonis, a lot more is yet to be seen, though his highlights reel thus far is impressive:

The Portland native is Lithuania’s most recent draft entry, having gone (as the 11th pick) to Orlando Magic in 2016. Encouragingly though, Sabonis became the fourth Lithuanian out of the last five to be drafted to make it into the top 30 picks.

That itself underlines the growth of Lithuanian success stories at the NBA draft over the past 20 years. Now, naturally, the dream is for a Lithuanian to become the very first pick at a draft, and as the careers of men like Šarūnas Jasikevičius show, nothing is impossible.

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