Runner-up in the 2013 European Championship and Jerry Garcia’s favorite national team, Lithuania will be a medal contender in the inaugural 2014 Basketball World Cup and could pose as Team USA’s lone threat on the road to the championship game.
“The Other Dream Team” will be playing without its leader Linas Kleiza, who is sitting to recover from the wear and tear of last season with Fenerbahce Ulker in Turkey. Kleiza, a former NBA player who will spend this season with Armani Milano in the Euroleague, has long been a staple of the Lithuanian national team, having been an All-European Championships First Team member last summer and All-World Championships Team member when they won bronze in 2010.
With Kleiza out of the picture, the pressure falls squarely on Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas, to step up as a dominant force in this campaign. Valanciunas had been a valuable role player in previous tournaments for Lithuania. Now 22, this will be the year that Valanciunas needs to make his presence felt inside for Lithuania to be a contender in this tournament.
After averaging 11.3 points, and 8.8 rebounds on a much-improved Raptors team last season, the World Championships will be an opportunity for Valanciunas to make a statement that he is the one of the top centers in the world.
Entering his third NBA season, the World Cup could be the turning point where Valanciunas either takes his game to the next level (enabling him to command a big extension when he is eligible next summer), or reaches his ceiling is as a solid but unspectacular starting center. As Lithuania’s most important player in this tournament, one way or another, those questions will be answered.
Valanciunas will be joined in the lineup by Houston Rockets forward Donatas Montiejunas, a talented 7-footer who has yet to make a significant impact since coming to the NBA. “D-Mo” brings an inside-outside game and length thar can cause matchup problems for most frontcourts in the World Cup. His 18 points in a blowout exhibition win over Greece is indicative of his potential impact. Whether he can move from being a young talent at the end of the rotation to a serious contributor will likely be an X-factor for the Lithuanians.
Backing up this NBA duo will be the soon to be 35-year-old Lavrinovic twins, Darjus and Ksystof. Two of the better European big men of the last decade, the 6-11 brothers are very much in the Lithuanian mold of tall knockdown shooters. Longtime national team member Paulius Jankunas will bring his physical and spirited play inside, giving Lithuania one of the deepest frontcourts at the World Cup.
While Lithuania is very solid up front, its backcourt is filled with question marks. It has been unable to produce a pure point guard to replace the commanding presence recently retired Sarunas Jasikevicius brought to the table.
The 6-5 Mantas Kalnietis is this team’s lead guard and one of the few true creators off the dribble. His size, court vision and aggression will be crucial if Lithuania is going to make any noise. Shooting guard Renaldas Seibutis should see heavy minutes, as his quickness and slashing ability give him a lot of opportunities playing next to so many shooters.
Sarunas Vasiliauskas , a 25-year-old point guard, should be given a chance to prove himself with this team’s lack of backcourt depth. Lithuania’s biggest weakness is the lack of a true point guard, and Vasiliauskas could possibly step up as the quarterback of this team with a strong showing.
At the wing will be Martynas Pocius, who played for Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and is a versatile guard capable of playing all three small positions. Since leaving Duke, Pocius has played on some of the strongest teams in the Euroleague and a reliable player for the Lithuanian squad.
The rotation is rounded out at small forward with Jonas Maciulis, who this season will move from Panathinaikos Athens to Real Madrid. His length and strength are a great fit in Lithuania’s system, and he should help fill the void in Kleiza’s absence with his aggressive style.
Matchups with Australia and Slovenia should be interesting, but the Lithuanians should have some time to get into a rhythm with a relatively easy schedule in Group D. Their weaker group gives them some time to mold as a team, and a national team as proud as the Lithuanians can be very dangerous if it finds its groove.
Lithuania may not be anywhere as strong as Team USA. But this is a team that could sneak up on the Americans on a bad day and should be a strong contender for a bronze medal this summer.
AJ Mitnick is an American living in Israel and working as an assistant coach for Maccabi Rishon Lezion of the Israeli Basketball Super League. A graduate of IDC Herzliya, Mitnick is in his third season with Maccabi Rishon, where they have made the Israeli League Final Four, and have twice made the Final Four of the Israeli State Cup . Follow him on Twitter.