With a stellar season under his belt, the 21-year-old Lithuanian talent, who will almost certainly join the Houston Rockets for next year, sat down with Jakub Wojczyński to reflect on the season in Gdynia, talk about the issues with the national team and about the future in the NBA.
Looking back at this season with Asseco Prokom – can you say that you are satisfied with your decision to sign in Poland?
My goal was to be in a team, which would use me, where I can show my skills and grow up as a player. I couldn’t expect that I will get a lot of space on the court. I’m really happy that coaches – starting from Pacesas, now Adamek – saw my abilities. They keep on playing me. They know I can bring the team up from the bottom of the game and make them win.
Did you have any offers during season, especially when you were eliminated from Euroleague and VTB United League?
I did. I was talking with my family, especially my dad. I’m leaving to the NBA next year, so going somewhere for three months was not a very smart thing to do. I know these guys, we have very good relation in the team, we understand everyone on the court and off, joking and things like that. And now I would go to new team, adjust to the rotation for one month, so it’s really two months left to the end of the season. I don’t see the reason to do this, so I decided to stay.
Don’t you think that jump from Polish league to the NBA will be very difficult? The difference of levels is so big.
In NBA the game is more open. Here in Poland teams know how I play, so every game for me is harder and harder. They double team me, triple team me. Right now it’s even harder to play here than in NBA. And why you say “from Polish league”? I played Euroleague with European teams all year. This is just two months at the end of the season. And still – we don’t have that kind of the team that we can relax, play the game tight and still get the win. We have to be ready for every game.
What are your plans for next couple weeks? Are you planning to play for national team?
We will see. Right now I’m having some problems with the national team, because between the national team’s training camp and my NBA contract is a one month gap.
The national team’s coach Kestutis Kemzura wants me to come. I don’t want to risk whole my life, my dreams, to lose it in two, three weeks maybe. It depends on when we finish Polish league. If we finish 4-0, we will have more time. If we finish for example 3-4, I’ll have two weeks to sign a contract that guarantees everything, then come and play. This is problem which we try to solve.
We are trying to search opportunities how to do this. I understand the coach because it’s hard for him to take me after qualifying for Olympics. I’m trying to do the national team this year, it’s a personal thing. Coach understands me perfectly. I would have to practice with best Lithuanian guys, put effort, everything.
What if something happens? Who will sign me? Who wants injured players? No one. Jonas Maciulis had the same problem. He got injured, didn’t extend contract with Armani Milano and then didn’t play till he signed with Montepaschi Siena two months ago.
And if you skip the national team - what’s next?
I’m going to Italy for couple of weeks. I will rest one week, the other I will workout with personal coaches. I hope I’ll meet Houston Rockets, because they will be Eurocamp.
How about Houston? Have you set any date of your arrival to Houston?
I can sign contract from July 1st. Till then I have to clear things out. When I sign the contract, I can go.
Are you 100% sure you will play in NBA next season?
It’s not 100%. I told them: if you don’t see me in rotation, I don’t want to be someone who sits on the bench. I would prefer to go to strong Euroleague team to take myself a challenge, fight for position. They said that they see me, but I have to show them. Every time, wherever I go, I have to prove everybody what I’m capable of. This is the life, this is basketball. Nothing is easy.
When you were growing up, were you Houston Rockets’ fan?
That time in Lithuania everybody was watching Arvydas Sabonis playing for Portland Trail Blazers. I was cheering like others. I was happy how he played. When I grow up I started to watch more Euroleague games. I found Luis Scola, who played incredible back to the basket. He is one of the under the basket playing guys, he is not jumping or something, but he is very hard worker and know how to play basketball.
Was Sabonis your role model?
When I was a kid – yes. But when he retired I had to search someone who is still playing, someone, who I can take something from. That guy is Scola.
...who plays for Rockets’. So next season dreams come true?
I hope so! Dreams come true... If nothing happens till the end of the season.
Have you ever met Scola?
I had a chance when I was after the draft last year. I was in Houston at the dinner with Rockets. He was recovering after small injury, I met him there. I was really excited. But I try to learn from every player, when I see something what can I take. Make his move my own.
Many young Polish guys go to Italy. Is it good direction?
It depends on which team you choose and if the team see you as a future player. And it depends also how prepared you go. They were really surprised when I came. They said that none of their players at my age had skills I had. I didn’t have experience that time, because Lithuanian league is completely different from Italian.
I think you have to leave your country as soon as possible, because people abroad are not worshipping you. They put you down on the ground literally. In Lithuania I had great season and I was thinking I’m a good player. I came to Italy and I was down, but then I saw that I made incredible job.
So do you think that Mateusz Ponitka made wrong decision to sign long term deal with Prokom?
He’s staying with Euroleague team and will have a chance next season. But he needs to work a lot. Everything depends on him. I was working like crazy trying to improve everything. He has to be the same. Psychologically it’s harder to be in other country – no parents, no friend, only you. But on the other side you grow up. Press and the people are not worshipping you.
I heard from the other guys on the team that everybody in Poland is telling he’s one of the best prospects. He can be feeling that he is really incredible player. I’m not telling that he’s not, but he has to understand. This is Poland, not Spain. You have to work every day as hard as possible to be the best on the court here, so someone sees you and you go higher.
If you go to the NBA, what does have to happen to make you satisfied?
To be the best player of the year. You know I want to reach the most that’s possible... but that’s nearly impossible in your rookie year. So this is the thing. I’m never satisfied. If you are satisfied that means you will not improve any more. For me there are no limits. Every game I miss some shots, don’t see opportunity to pass to my teammate. I don’t see people to have perfect game...
LeBron James had lately – 40 points, 18 rebounds, 9 assists vs. Indiana.
Okay, it happens one time a season. When you satisfied it means you are done. I never put the roof. When I was kid I was saying I want to be the best player in the world. People were laughing. Even now they are, saying I’m stupid. But I’m trying. I will give my best, work my ass off to be most creative, most improved, most athletic player. Why can I not try? No one can say I’m an idiot, because I try.
Do you think that you improved a lot this season?
I don’t know. People from the side said I improved a lot, but I didn’t feel I changed something incredibly. I’m happy because a lot of people talk I can’t rebound. I had bad rebounding season the first year in Treviso. So I showed – this is just talks.
We would like to thank Jakub Wojczyński from Przeglad Sportowy for sharing the English version of the interview with LithuaniaBasketball.com. You can find the Polish version at Przeglad Sportowy.