Star duo work magic for new-look Lithuania

By David Hein, AFP

SEVILLE, Spain–Lithuania’s NBA stars Donatas Motiejunas and Jonas Valanciunas have been working magic for the national team at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. The duo led the Baltic state to a first place finish in Group D with a 4-1 record and a last 16 showdown with New Zealand on Sunday. Motiejunas is Lithuania’s second-leading scorer at 10.4 points per game and is second in rebounding at 3.8 rebounds per a game, making him one of Lithuania’s most consistent players at just 23 years of age. “It depends on my teammates, I rely on them. I play the game and try to score some points,” said Motiejunas, who plays with the Houston Rockets in the NBA.

Motiejunas has been starting games with a player he grew up competing against — 22-year-old Toronto Raptors center Valanciunas. In Spain, Motiejunas is starting at power forward and Valanciunas at center for the first time together in the national team. And their chemistry continues to improve game by game.

When asked about how the young duo are growing together on the court, Motiejunas said: “It’s basketball. Smart basketball players pass the ball. We share the ball with one another and we play for each other.” The emergence of Motiejunas has started to change the Lithuanian team. With Motiejunas and Valanciunas starting games, a new generation of players is beginning to have a bigger impact on the national side.

The team is starting to come together and Motiejunas continues to feel more comfortable as his game improves. “We are a good group of guys. We are fighting for each other. We are young and inexperienced a little bit but we will keep on fighting and that is the key to getting a win.” Motiejunas and Valanciunas are not the only young players getting a chance for Lithuania.

National team captain and starting point guard Mantas Kalnietis suffered a collarbone injury just a week before the World Cup started forcing less experienced point guards Sarunas Vasiliauskas and Adas Juskevicius to take much bigger roles with the team.

“It’s a great experience and I think it’s the biggest chance they will ever get in their lives. I mean, if they will not take it now, there might not be another one. If you don’t take your chance, you might never have it again,” Motiejunas said. The FIBA World Cup has been a turning point for Motiejunas, who averaged less than five points a game last summer at EuroBasket 2013 in Slovenia. Motiejunas had trouble playing in limited minutes and was an inconsistent performer. But in Spain he has done everything his coaches ask of him and knows now that he will play better when his focus is on the team. “Win as a team, that is the most important thing,” concluded Motiejunas.