Jasikevicius, Pacers a Winning Combo
A rookie. A piece of the puzzle. Those were the modest terms Sarunas Jasikevicius used to describe one of the proudest players in European basketball.
His new employer was a little more aggressive in his characterization.
"He’s a winner," said Larry Bird, "and he wants to play for a winner."
The unquestioned leader of teams that won the last three Euroleague championships, Jasikevicius signed a reported three-year, $12 million contract with the Pacers Thursday. Though Jasikevicius (pronounced yah-sa-KEV-ə-chiss) isn't a household name in the United States, basketball connoisseurs are well aware his signing represents one of the most significant moves by any NBA team this offseason.
"He is the golden boy," said Dani Inbar, an Israeli television journalist who is filming Jasikevicius' life story. "Whenever you need him, he'll be there.
"To put it in perspective, Manu Ginobili (of the Spurs) was a good player, above average, in Europe and look at what he's done in the NBA. Saras (Jasikevicius' nickname) was a much bigger star in Europe than Ginobili."
He scored 28 points to lead Lithuania past a U.S. team laden with NBA stars in the 2004 Olympics; this after scoring 27 and missing a buzzer-beater that would've stunned the U.S. in 2000. Bird began scouting Jasikevicius almost immediately after taking over as team President in 2003.
"I’ve been chasing this young man around for a couple of years and knowing that he signed a multi-year deal makes me feel at ease now," Bird said. "I think Sarunas is going to have a major role in what we are trying to accomplish as a team and I think he is a great fit for our organization and for our team.
"A lot of you have probably never seen him play much but believe me, he is going to help us. He is a good young man, he’s a worker, he’s a competitor and he’s won a lot of championships."
A muscular 6-4 guard, Jasikevicius attracted plenty of attention from NBA teams but his decision boiled down to a choice between the Pacers and Cavaliers. The lure of immediate contention in Indiana outweighed the prospect of playing with best friend Zydrunas Ilgauskas in Cleveland. Having Bird on the recruiting trail didn't hurt.
"Obviously, he has an incredible amount of respect everywhere, all over the world and in Europe," said Jasikevicius. "He gets introduced every game to a standing ovation when he comes over. So we know he is there, for sure. But for me it was very nice to have a guy like this to come and talk to me a couple of times. It was great, obviously I was a big fan.
"It was very nice meeting him but at the same time I had to make a decision based on the overall situation and I felt like the situation here is really great."
Primarily a point guard, Jasikevicius enters a position already stocked by incumbent starter Jamaal Tinsley, veteran backup Anthony Johnson and journeyman Eddie Gill. How the rotation will sort itself out remains to be seen but there's little question Jasikevicius is expected to carve a prominent role.
"I had a lot of conversations with Sarunas during the month of July about our situation and one thing he never asked for was any kind of guarantee about playing time," said Coach Rick Carlisle. "I think in his mind, and I can’t speak for him, but he felt he’s the kind of guy that’s going to be good enough to play in this league. He’s looking for a situation I believe where there is an opportunity to win at a high level."
Though not a dominant scorer, Jasikevicius is known as a clutch player who wants the ball in his hands when a game is on the line. That role opened up with Reggie Miller's retirement.
"He has a unique ability to get the ball to people that’s open," said Bird. "He can hit open shots. He’s a competitor. Him and Ronnie Artest and Jack (Stephen Jackson) are some of the other guys I feel are great competitors so he’ll fit right in. He’s not afraid to tell guys where they are supposed to be. He just adds so much to our team. "
Jasikevicius is a legend throughout Europe because of his history of leading teams to titles. Lithuania won the 2003 European Championship (he was named MVP) and Olympic bronze in 2000. With F.C. Barcelona, he won two Spanish national titles and the Euroleague championship in 2003. He joined Maccabi Tel Aviv and on two Israeli national championships as well as back-to-back Euroleague crowns, earning MVP of the Final Four in May.
"I think I just am prepared to be a piece of the puzzle," he said. "On a daily basis, I have to earn the respect of my teammates and the respect of my coaches and everybody in the organization. So it is really difficult in a different situation than if I had changed teams in Europe where people would know me and maybe it would be easier at the beginning.
"Here, I’m just another guy from Europe and I’m OK with that because this has been a dream for me to play in the NBA for many years now and hopefully I’m just looking forward to being part of a winning team."