Size and Skill

7-footer Motiejunas comes with a high ceiling, but questions linger

If he's still available at No. 8, Donatas Motiejunas' skill set make him an attractive candidate for the Pistons.
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Editor’s note: continues a 15-part series leading to the June 23 draft with a look at one of the possibilities for their pick at No. 8 in the first round, Lithuanian 7-footer Donatas Motiejunas. Next: Candidates for the pick at No. 33.

During an NBA playoffs run that has seen Dirk Nowitzki’s place in NBA history debated, one thing is certain: Whether you consider the best player Germany has ever produced one of the top 10 the NBA has ever seen – as Nowitzki’s Dallas coach, Rick Carlisle, contends – or merely one of the top 50, it’s a safe bet that every NBA team would love to have one just like him.

In the 2011 NBA draft, the closest thing to Nowitzki is Donatas Motiejunas. At 7-foot-0 and 220 pounds, Motiejunas is far more a skilled power forward than a physical paint presence. He handles the ball well with both hands, shoots it with the ease that suggests he could become a consistent 3-point weapon as he matures and more recently has begun to show he can score with deft footwork on the blocks, too.

But that could describe a long list of international prospects over the years who couldn’t make that tantalizing skill set translate into NBA effectiveness. A few years ago, the Milwaukee Bucks thought Yi Jianlian would chart a career course similar to Nowitzki’s after he wowed them with a dazzling individual workout.

One year later, they shipped him to New Jersey, where he did little in two seasons before landing in Washington. After four NBA seasons, it looks like a very long shot that Yi will ever crack an NBA starting five, much less draw into the Nowitzki conversation.

Yet NBA scouts remain intrigued by the potential of Motiejunas, only 20 and from the basketball hotbed of Lithuania, which for years supplied the stars that kept the Soviet national team among the world’s elite.

More on Donatas Motiejunas
Country: Lithuania

Size: 7-foot-0, 220 pounds

Age: 20 on draft night

The good: Motiejunas is a highly skilled 7-footer who could develop into an elite scorer with his shooting range, ballhandling ability and potential to score in the paint, as well. Surprisingly athletic, as well. Great hands and good footwork.

The bad: Motiejunas did not exhibit much in the way of toughness or defensive intensity during his time in Italy. Scouts will have to decide if that’s something he will acquire through maturity as he adds strength to a lean 220-pound frame.

The skinny: The vibe from Tom Gores at his introductory press conference, where he talked of a need to return to core Pistons values, would suggest someone other than Motiejunas. But if players who can make an impact defensively or lend an aura of toughness aren’t there, they’ll have to take a hard look at the 7-footer’s skill level.

There was speculation he could have been a lottery pick a year ago, but he chose to return to play another year in Italy for Benetton Treviso. He averaged 12.8 points and 4.4 rebounds a game in the Italian league and 10.9 points and 5.6 boards in Eurocup competition. Motiejunas shot better than 50 percent from the field and hit 43 percent of his 3-pointers in Italian league play.

Motiejunas, on skill level and size and projectability, in fact, should be in the discussion for the No. 1 pick overall. If scouts catch him on the right day, it’s easy to fall in love with Motiejunas. Another NBA star to whom he has been compared: Lakers All-Star Pau Gasol. But watch Motiejunas over longer stretches, it’s been said, and some questions arise.

And those questions are pretty significant: defense, rebounding, toughness, passion for the game. For a Pistons team that just changed hands, with new owner Tom Gores stressing a return to core values, and Joe Dumars equally interested in turning around the results of a season that saw the Pistons finish at or near the bottom of the league in most defensive categories, it might be a stretch to think Motiejunas – for all his offensive potential – would be a logical fit for the Pistons.

But if other big men more universally coveted, like Enes Kanter or fellow Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas, are off the board, then the Pistons might decide Motiejunas’ vast scoring potential is worth the roll of the dice in a draft that offers few players with certain All-Star futures.

Motiejunas might not play with the tenacity of Valanciunas, but Valanciunas, 16 months younger, at present doesn’t have nearly the skill set of Motiejunas. Motiejunas is not the elite athlete that the Czech Republic’s Jan Vesely is, but Vesely isn’t close to Motiejunas as a shooter, ballhandler or post scoring threat. If you watch edited highlight clips of all three, Motiejunas is probably the one who’d do more to leave an impression.

Which begs several questions, whether it’s more likely Valanciunas or Vesely can improve their skill level or that Motiejunas’ competitiveness will be elevated by the higher caliber of play he’ll face in the NBA.

One issue the Pistons would have to address should they decide Motiejunas is their guy: Where does he fit on a roster that already has two players, Charlie Villanueva and Austin Daye, capable of filling the modern NBA role of “stretch four” – a power forward who can shoot well enough from the perimeter to create matchup problems and driving lanes by forcing the defense to play farther from the basket?

Motiejunas will get the chance to sell himself to NBA executives this weekend and he’ll have something of a home-court advantage. The Eurocamp will be held in Treviso and Motiejunas is expected to participate in workouts and interviews there

The Pistons will be well-represented. Vice president Scott Perry and personnel director George David are expected to sit down for an interview with Motiejunas and see him work out. Both, as well as Dumars, made at least one trip apiece to Europe last season and saw him play in both games and practice.

It’s probably accurate to guess that Motiejunas would be more of a Plan B for the Pistons in this draft, perhaps similar to Marcus Morris of Kansas, in the event that players who project as better fits next to Greg Monroe up front are off the board. But an impressive weekend in Treviso gives him one big final opportunity to convince NBA scouts his skill level is impossible to ignore.