ATHENS (Aug. 24, 2004) --
Could it be that the best point guard in the world doesn't even play in the NBA?
That's the belief among many here in Athens who have been watching Lithuania's Sarunas Jasikevicius over the last week and a half. From his creative flair as a playmaker to his unlimited shooting range, the 6-3 point guard has emerged as one of the top players in the Olympic tournament.
Jasikevicius is averaging 16.0 points, 5.8 assists and 1.40 steals for Lithuania in five Olympic games.
So why hasn't Jasikevicius been given a shot at playing professionally in the United States? The 28-year-old, who played stateside in high school (Solanco H.S., Quarryville, Pa.) and college (University of Maryland, 1995-98) doesn't have the answer.
"I can't just walk into a team's locker room and say, 'Hey, I came to play for your team,' Jasikevicius said after being asked why he hasn't played in the NBA. "I had no propositions at all from the NBA so far, and since those guys know what they're doing, I guess I'm not supposed to be able to play in the NBA."
Sarcasm aside, his play in this Olympics says that he is capable of playing with anyone in the world. In fact, no team in the tournament felt the sting of Jasikevicius' hoops prowess more than the United States. In their game against Lithuania, the U.S. played easily its best game of the tournament. Tim Duncan and company were shooting the ball well, and their perimeter defense was aggressive and tight. It was a game that, on any other night, would've gone down as a win for the USA.
Were it not for the play of Jasikevicius.
Whether fueled by the chance to show his stuff against some of the NBA's best, or driven by the desire to make up for coming within one 3-pointer of a victory over the U.S. in the semifinals of the 2000 Sydney Games, Jasikevicius single-handedly carried his team to the upset victory.
He was an assassin from the perimeter, hitting 7-of-12 3-pointers en route to a 28-point game. But just as impressive as his long-range marksmanship were his qualities as a leader. Late in the game, after hitting a pivotal 3-pointer while getting fouled by Lamar Odom, he confidently stared down Odom as he walked to the free-throw line to complete the four-point play. Then, after the final whistle blew and his team had won, he quickly got his teammates to stop celebrating, imploring them to compose themselves as champions instead, as he knew that this was just group play and there was still the medal round to come. No need to rub it in the United States' faces, after all, when there's a good chance that they'd meet up with them again later.
The fiery guard has also hit 15-of-35 3-pointers in this Olympics.
After the game, a drained Larry Brown was asked if, in fact, Jasikeivicius was the best point guard in the world. And while Coach Brown's response might have driven Lithuanian journalists to fits, it is telling as to why Jasikevicius might not have been given a shot in the U.S. so far.
"No, he's not [the best point guard in the world]," said Brown. "He's a great player, I'm not saying anything to take that away. But there are a lot of great players. I think he's a great international player. There's a lot of things he can do internationally that he'd never get done in our league; with the way they set screens, and the fact that you can hide a guy in the zone. But in international ball, he's as good as they get."
In short, while Jasikevicius' preternatural combination of skill and guts can't be questioned, his defense and ability to thrive in the one-on-one game has been.
"So much of [the NBA] game is isolation -- one-on-one and two-on-two," continued Brown. "So unless you have great quickness and athletic ability, it's a struggle for you."
To his credit, Jasikevicius will be the first to admit that he and his Lithuanian teammates have to rely on long hours in the gym to triumph over more athletic foes.
"[In Lithuania], we have to stress skills and fundamentals," said Jasikevicius. "We're not blessed with athletic ability, so we have to really go the other way around. Kids are taught fundamentals, like shooting and dribbling ... We do practice a lot more than kids in high school in the U.S."
Jasikevicius went on to talk about his days at the University of Maryland, and what it showed him as far as differences between American and European playing styles.
"[Maryland is] a great basketball school, there's no question about it, but European basketball is based in fundamentals," said the former Terrapin. "With the U.S., everything seems to be based on the one-on-one game and stuff like that. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just a different kind of game."
Jasikevicius then talked about how playing at Maryland both helped and hindered his development as a basketball player.
"Basketball-wise, I think I missed a lot, because [in Europe] people play twice a day in practice with men who are 29 or 30 years old," said Jasikevicius. "In the U.S., you play with kids your own age, whereas older men beat up on you more and that's good for you. But, on the other hand, [in the U.S.] it's a different style of basketball; it's more physical, more athletic, and I had to adjust to that. At first it was difficult, but after I adjusted I played there and at a decent level, so I think overall it was a positive experience."
When Jasikevicius was not able to convert his success with the Terps into a career in the NBA, he crossed back over the Atlantic and went on to quietly become one of the premier players in Europe. After Maryland, he spent a season in Lithuania, and one in Slovenia, before signing with prestigious Spanish club F.C. Barcelona for the 2000-01 season, where he spent the next three seasons.
Jasikevicius' European pro career with F.C. Barcelona (pictured) and Maccabi Tel Aviv has been hugely successful.
(Photo courtesy of F.C. Barcelona)
His third season with Barcelona was legendary, as he led the Spaniards to a coveted "treble" (three-title season) by capturing the Spanish League title, the Spanish National Cup and the Euroleague championship.
So what did Jasikevicius do for an encore? After leading Lithuania to triumph in the 2003 European Championships -- where he was named MVP of the tournament -- he signed with Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv and captured yet another treble by winning the Israeli National Cup, the Israeli National Championship and then the Euroleague championship once again. He was also named All-Euroleague First Team in 2003-04.
It's difficult to imagine a player in the U.S. or in Europe putting together better back-to-back seasons. Naturally, the only fitting encore would be for Jasikevicius to triumph here in Athens and lead his native Lithuania -- a hoops-mad country of roughly just 3.5 million people that lists basketball as its national sport -- to a gold medal. But Jasikevicius feels that the road to gold still goes through the U.S.
"They are still the favorites for the gold medal, because they possess the most talented and skilled team in the tournament and if they play as good as they can, they can win against anybody," said Jasikevicius.
And what of his career? What if it doesn't include a successful stop in the U.S.? If he doesn't set foot on an NBA court, does that take away from his legacy as one of the world's premier players? In a 2003 Washington Post article, Jasikevicius didn't think it would.
"A lot of Europeans have tried the NBA dream and found it is a myth," Jasikevicius said almost a year ago. "European ball is getting closer to the level of the NBA, anyway. I don't feel I have to play there to prove myself as a player."
Most of the NBA players here in Athens would agree with that assessment. Jasikevicius has certainly already proven himself to them.