Let it be known, this Lithuania team is not travelling to China merely to take part. The goal is to place on the podium in at this World Cup, at the very least. This is a group brimming with ambition and with bona fide talent ready to overwhelm their opposition.
Head Coach Dainius Adomaitis’ World Cup roster will go into battle with a pair of NBA stars in the shape of Memphis Grizzlies’ center Jonas Valanciunas and young Indiana Pacers big Domantas Sabonis on the frontline. In a tiny sample size during qualifying games, they showed how they earned their formidable reputation, by averaging 13 and 14.5 points per game respectively.
Accompanying the bouldering duo is a collection of effective and sedulous players, equally as motivated to write another exciting chapter in the book of Lithuanian basketball. Other notable names include Olympiacos forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Parma combo guard Adas Juskevicius, Rytas Vilnius’ forward Eimantas Bendzius and Lokomotiv Kuban guard Mantas Kalnietis.
The team will be made up of an interesting mixture of veteran leadership and exciting young talent. The final roster is a result of 30 players taking part in qualifying games, with four of those players having played over 10 games to earn their spot.
It is worth noting that veteran forward Jonas Maciulis and Arturas Gudaitis will be taking part, despite recent concerns around their fitness. Maciulis in particularly has been a linchpin for the national team since back in 2007.
To the wider basketball world, the roster could be perceived as top heavy, but that would be doing the players who tore their way through qualifying – with only 2 appearances each from their two stars - an injustice.
The road to China for Lithuania was almost as smooth as it could have been, despite one minor bump in the road. They ripped their way through the first round of qualifiers, going 6-0 against Poland, Hungary and Kosovo – a team that fell to a 56-point loss in Klaipeda.
In the second round, they entered Group J, which seemed to be more of a significant challenge for them, on paper. Still, they topped that group too, only losing one game, against Italy in Brescia back in November and even that was by a mere 5 points. To say that Lithuania made it out of the group unscathed would be an understatement, they were almost untouchable.
Finishing with an impressive record of 11-1 for the entirety of qualification, they boast the joint-best record in Europe, alongside an excellent Greece outfit. Their ability to really hammer teams with points shows up in their point differential number, which ended as +197 for qualifying – also the highest in the continent.
In their last three competitive fixtures, the Lithuanians have defeated Croatia, the Netherlands and Italy, in what was something of a revenge game. They will take a wealth of momentum into the competition, as they prepare to make a real statement on the game’s highest stage.
Alongside Senegal, Australia and Canada, the Lithuanians make up the widely discussed ‘group of death’. Frankly, there will be no easy games in Group H, which includes teams who are considered serious up-and-coming basketball nations.
Lithuania possesses a staunch self-belief as a basketball team and that will have been helped by their highly encouraging qualification performance. They were not short of confidence heading into this dreaded group regardless, but with Canada’s squad affected by a flurry of major personnel dropouts and Australia now missing star player Ben Simmons, they will see their window of opportunity widening as the competition draws closer.
Despite missing some of their more recognised names such as recent Boston Celtics signing Tacko Fall and Minnesota Timberwolves big Gorgui Dieng, Senegal are not a team to underestimate. In the second round of African Qualifiers, they finished Group F with a 10-2 record, second only to Nigeria.
A talented Australian side finished atop their group in the Asian qualifiers, also with a 10-2 record and a flabbergasting point differential of +328. In a pure coincidence, Canada too finished their qualification campaign with only two losses and although affected by the aforementioned withdrawals, should be seen as a challenger for this Lithuanian side.
Should Lithuania manage to progress to the second stage of the competition, they will be hard-pressed to find more difficult opponents than they will face to open things up in this unenviable group, barring a few obvious contenders. If they can find a way out of the ‘group of death’, the idea of leaving China with a medal of some colour becomes all the more tangible. The potential pitfalls are there, as these teams will serve as stiff competition for the Lithuanians, but the rewards could be glorious.
When considering the standout matchups in this group for Lithuania, it’s hard to see past the big men. With Adomaitis hoping to take a twin-towers style approach to their play, they will attempt to overwhelm their opposition with sheer physicality inside and crafty interior play. Like his father before him, Sabonis can punish on mismatches and alongside veteran centre Valanciunas, they will force many teams to adapt, in order to stay afloat.
If any team is equipped to handle Lithuania’s size, it may just be Australia. Although the two are unlikely to share the court often, experienced, physically imposing big men Aron Baynes and Andrew Bogut will be ready to battle under the basket. Both players are considered tough veterans and both also have an NBA championship to their name, which they earned in consecutive years for different teams. They know more than anybody what it takes to win on the highest stage. Look out for a hard-hitting matchup in the paint involving these four.
Canada’s Cory Joseph is arguably the most talented guard in the group and possesses an ability to engage his teammates, thus producing a fluid style of play and encouraging effective ball movement. Lithuania will likely depend on Mantas Kalnietis to try to negate the Sacramento Kings star’s threat, through stubborn defensive play and some of his own playmaking.
Against Australia, the loss of Ben Simmons does not provide the Lithuanians with free reign. The Utah Jazz’s Joe Ingles will be on hand to offer a scoring threat, while veteran guard Patty Mills and defensive pest Matthew Dellavedova are potential problems in their own ways.
Despite their unbelievable form in qualifying, Lithuania’s preparation hasn’t been completely perfect. In what could be a wake up call for them, in exhibitions games they were beaten by an excellent Serbia team, which includes Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic and guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, among others. Ricky Rubio and his Spanish teammates also handed them a loss, while they made light work of Finland just days later.
This tournament seems particularly significant for Jonas Valanciunas. After being traded away from the Toronto Raptors and the new Canada head coach Nick Nurse, he now has an opportunity to show them what they are missing. Not too long ago, the 27-year-old was considered one of the most consistent big men in the league and in the 19 games in which he featured for Memphis last year, he averaged above his career average in both points (19.9) and rebounds (10.7). In China, he will be afforded an opportunity to prove to the world just how effective he can be, as he approaches his prime years.
Lithuania has an important history with the game of basketball. In what is now considered to be one of the most interesting world basketball stories, Lithuania earned a bronze medal in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, while the most famous international team in history picked up the gold. It was an extremely important competition for Lithuania, as it was the first Olympic games after the country regained independence from the Soviet Union; they were able to proudly play under their own flag in an event that transcended sport.
One member of that tie-dye wearing, Grateful Dead sponsored team was the legendary Arvydas Sabonis – father of second-generation star Domantas. The younger Sabonis will be looking to create his own narrative at the World Cup and the 2020 Olympics and etch his own name in his country’s proud basketball tradition.
As previously mentioned, the opportunity for success for this team is great. Other teams in their opening group are slowly becoming moving targets and if there is a contender prepared to attack, it’s Lithuania -? a basketball team who truly value the worth of international competition.