The Pursuit Of Perfection
Donatas Motiejunas setting sights high following championship season in Europe
HOUSTON - Donatas Motiejunas wants to be a perfect player.
A bold proclamation to be sure, and one that is of course unattainable so long as he is governed by the rules that restrict the rest of humanity.
But it is that desire for perfection which drives him, compelling the 21-year-old to power through workouts and practices in an effort to achieve something much more realistic: to one day rank among the best big men in the NBA.
Make no mistake, Motiejunas has many miles, both literally and figuratively, to travel before any such claims can be made. Expectations must be managed, oceans must be crossed and the transition must be made from the international game to the NBA. Then of course one must consider the fact that the learning curve for NBA bigs is almost always steeper than the one faced by players who primarily ply their trade along the perimeter.
Motiejunas is well aware of those things. He’s also utterly unphased by them. His response is simply to use each one as fuel to power his own unique hoops journey, a trek that most recently took him to Poland where he won the Polish League championship Wednesday with his club team Asseco Prokom.
“A basketball player’s life is like this: every time you have to improve something. I was trying to improve every day something,” Motiejunas said while describing his approach this season via phone call from Poland. “I was trying to improve everything. I want to be a perfect player. That’s a lot of work and a lot of effort but we will see. Hopefully I will be one of the best players.”
Motiejunas made significant strides in that direction this season while averaging 15.7 points and 6.6 rebounds in just over 26 minutes per game during the 2011-12 campaign (in similar minutes he averaged 12.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per game with Treviso of the Italian League a year ago). He also proved to be an attentive listener with regard to the areas of his game that required improvement. After selecting him with the 20th pick in last year’s draft, the Rockets made rebounding a major point of emphasis for the 7-footer and he responded by not only increasing his overall averages on the glass but also by setting a Euroleague record with 18 defensive rebounds in a single game back in December.
Of course, it’s one thing to pile up stats; quite another to truly impact winning. So perhaps the most significant statement made by Motiejunas this season came during Game 7 of the Polish League Finals Wednesday when he rose to the occasion to record game-highs in both points (24) and rebounds (11) while leading his club to the title, an achievement made even sweeter and more profound since it came in response to a Game 6 defeat that had seen Motiejunas struggle mightily. Such a bounce back performance speaks to the confidence and mental toughness possessed by the young Lithuanian and those characteristics will undoubtedly be called upon and tested time and time again when the moment arrives for him to make the transition to NBA basketball.
“Those kind of games, they help you a lot,” said Motiejunas when asked about his Game 7 experience. “I think it’s the most important thing, win or lose, when one shot can be decisive. Getting experience is a precious thing; you cannot win without playing in these kind of games. It’s (valuable) experience and these kind of victories help you to grow up as a player and I’m really happy that this time we win.”
So when can Rockets fans expect to see Motiejunas stateside? The answer to that question is still somewhat up in the air while he awaits clarification regarding his status with the Lithuanian national team which will be competing in London this summer during the Olympics. If he does not play for his home country, there is a strong possibility that Motiejunas will be part of the Rockets’ summer league team this July. But regardless of what happens, both Motiejunas and the Rockets are optimistic he’ll be with the club by the start of training camp.
“I hope, I hope,” he says. “We will see. We will talk with the coaches and everyone. It’s also up to them; how they see me and if they have a spot for me -- that’s the most important question for the team. And from my side I will give my best and give everything I’ve got to show and prove to coach that I’m worth it to be on the court. The people watching me and following me, they know my skills and I will try to show those skills for people who will give me their trust.”
Those skills are quite a sight to behold, especially considering the physical package in which they reside. Motiejunas was devastatingly effective in the post this season, possessing the ability to finish with either hand around the basket. He’s also a beast in transition, capable of flying past the vast majority of big men on his way up the floor, and though his face up game and long-range shooting stroke are still a work in progress, the core fundamentals are there hinting at the wide-ranging offensive arsenal he might have at his disposal one day.
“The biggest thing for him is probably going to be finishing with contact,” says Rockets Director of Scouting Arturas Karnisovas. “He possesses a huge arsenal of back to the basket moves and he’s very skilled, it’s just going to be the physicality in our league in the post. He’s going to have to learn to finish with contact.
“Then there’s going to be on defense a huge learning curve because defensively the things they allow in Europe, it’s different than what you’re allowed to do in the NBA. European leagues is kind of like college in the post, you really can’t do much; you can just body up people but you can’t put hands on them whereas in the post in the NBA you can actually put an elbow out and a hand on the guy so it’s going to be a huge adjustment there. Then help-and-recover, defensive close-outs, less zone -- those things will be an adjustment for him as well.
“He’s been very responsive to our comments. We talked to him about what he needs to improve and he worked all year. He spent lots of time on individual practices on top of his games and the team needs. He’s a player who always strives to get better and he’s never satisfied which is a great trait to have, especially when you’re planning to play in the NBA.”
And especially when your stated goal is not just excellence, but perfection.