Credit: AP, AFP - Scanpix, T.Matijoška | BasketNews illustration/A.Zaikauskas
Credit AP, AFP - Scanpix, T.Matijoška | BasketNews illustration/A.Zaikauskas

Rokas Jokubaitis haven't seen an NBA Draft broadcast before so the expectations for this year's event were simple - wait out for his name to be called and go to bed at around 5 in the morning.

Rokas Jokubaitis

Rokas  Jokubaitis
Position: PG
Age: 20
Height: 192 cm
Weight: 88 kg
Birth place: Mažeikiai, Lithuania

His plan didn't quite work. Even though Jokubaitis was drafted higher than expected, he had to try hard to fight off sleepiness.

"I thought the whole draft would last two hours. But I noticed that after two hours, we were 20 picks in only," Jokubaitis smiled.

Due to the time difference, 2021 NBA Draft started at 3 AM Lithuanian time. So when Jokubaitis invited his friends to watch the broadcast together, he didn't expect it to take three hours to begin the second round of the NBA draft.

It should have been an even longer night for Rokas. Mostly because he thought he would be selected in the middle of the second round. Jokubaitis made a poll with his friends before the draft, guessing the number of his selection. Just for fun.

Jokubaitis wrote down the No. 44. Not just because he had read ESPN's Mock Draft. Before July 29, the Brooklyn Nets were showing serious interest in Jokubaitis. Brooklyn's people approached the 20-year old combo guard and invited him to come for a workout.

However, Jokubaitis camp decided that his presence in the United States won't make a huge difference. So Barcelona player chose to follow the draft at home in Lithuania.

"I thought that I would be the 44th or later. That pick was the most realistic to me," Jokubaitis revealed to BasketNews.

When the second round of the NBA draft started, Jokubaitis and his friends leaned closer to the TV.

On the screen, he saw Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum announcing the 32nd pick when he received a text message.

"No. 34! Congratulations! Good job!" Jokubaitis agent texted him.

His former teammates KC Rivers, Deon Thompson, Augustine Rubit soon extended their congratulations before the official announcement. Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania did their job too, spoiling it on Twitter.

Jokubaitis friends turned their cameras on to capture the highlight of his career, with Tatum announcing the selection. Jokubaitis started checking for a better position near the screen to prepare the best angle for a picture.

And then - bam - they've put a TV commercial.

Kendrick Perkins was on the screen when they went back, trying to pronounce Jo-Ku-Bai-Tis, a new member of the New York Knicks. Mark Tatum was gone. The podium was empty.

"It was a fun night. You can experience it only once in a lifetime," Jokubaitis told BasketNews. "I didn't expect to be drafted so early. No. 34... We were suggesting No. 39 at the earliest... Like real Lithuanians, we were shy and didn't set high expectations. So the 34th draft pick made me happy. It was a fun night."

The Knicks surprised Jokubaitis. They didn't approach him personally before the draft. The Brooklyn Nets and Memphis Grizzlies did, showing significant interest during the pre-draft process. There were also Minnesota Timberwolves and Charlotte Hornets kicking tires for their potential second-round selections.

Some of the Knicks fans still find it hard to pronounce another difficult Lithuanian name after they had figured out Kuzminskas and Brazdeikis before they were gone. But they will soon respect Jokubaitis, who won the hearts of many crazy Lithuanian fans with his lively, sharp basketball and authentic personality. Either watching him from a distance, in Barcelona, or in front of them in Madison Square Garden.

Jokubaitis went to bed early in the morning, at the time when most of the Lithuanians usually go to work. It wasn't easy to close his eyes after such a long but exciting adventure.

In 2018 he was too shy to say he'll make the roster of Zalgiris main team after putting 31 points on LaMelo Ball. In three years, he became one of the key Zalgiris rotation players. Lithuanian National Team playmaker. Barcelona guard. And now, he's the 34th pick in the NBA Draft.

In an interview with BasketNews, the runner-up for the EuroLeague Rising Star award shared his thoughts about the New York Knicks and his future in the NBA or Barcelona.

- Congratulations on being drafted by the New York Knicks. But 10 days ago, you officially signed a contract with Barcelona until 2025. What's next? The Summer League? New York or Barcelona?
- I'm still waiting for the news about the Summer League. If I'm going to the United States now, later I will go straight to Barcelona from there, which means I won't see my family and friends before the season.

But I would love to test myself in the Summer League. I want to show what I can do and check how they play there.

- What are your chances of coming to New York immediately, starting with the next season?
- I was told that if I were drafted, I would be stashed. I think it's the most realistic scenario. After a good season in Europe, I could come to work out for the team or play in the Summer League and fight for the roster spot.

You have to expect the best. It would be perfect if I had the chance to choose between New York or Barcelona. However, it would be a tough decision.

In my opinion, the most likely scenario for me is staying in Europe at least for one more year. 

- Hypothetically, if it was up to you, you go straight to New York or Barcelona?
- I knew you'd ask me this (laughs). It's so tough to say... First of all, I want to see from inside how they work in the USA, to see the players, coaching staff. Then it would be easier to decide.

I prefer Europe so far. But I was never so close to the NBA. Now, after this draft night, I can talk about the NBA more seriously.

It's so weird because I always considered myself a European-style basketball player. That would be a tough decision...

- What did you learn about making difficult decisions from your experience deciding to leave your first team Zalgiris for Barcelona this summer?
- I learned that the faster you decide, the better it will be for you. My family members and close friends also advised me to make up my mind quickly because then I will need to deal with the consequences, which is easier.

- What did you learn about your new NBA team in less than 24 hours?
- The organization, this franchise... Madison Square Garden... These are the first things that come to your mind.

They're back to the playoffs. The Knicks were one of the teams who came back from the bottom. I see they have a clear direction now. 

Once I played against RJ Barrett in an exhibition game with the Lithuania youth team. I remember him dunking over our big man's head... 

I thought they would go deeper into the playoffs. After coming back to the playoffs, the expectations were so high that it was hard to deal with the loss against the Atlanta Hawks. The Knicks fans are so emotional. You probably remember Kristaps Porzingis's story...

- That's the thing I wanted to ask you... What were your first interactions with the Knicks fans?
- I checked their Facebook page, and I've read the comments. And I saw people texting 'who's this guy,' 'Tingis Pingis' and something like that (laughs).

It's going to be interesting. But the whole franchise is moving forward.

- NBA scouts make long-term rookie projections. From the player's standpoint, what kind of projection of yourself you had in your mind, trying to figure out how you could adapt to the NBA game in the future?
- You put yourself in the NBA rookie position and try to imagine how you would make things out. You think how you would play. For example, you think about your strengths. I try to compare the Euroleague and the NBA and think about what I can do on a high level. For example, to read the pick and roll game.

But of course, the speed or the athleticism is so different. When you think about the transition defense, and you imagine two huge guys coming at you...

- Like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George?
- Yes. And they're running at you. In the Euroleague, we have smart fouls. But do they use it in the NBA?

It's a mix of positive thoughts and some concerns. The game is so different, so the Summer League experience would help me to understand it better. 

- I expect you received so many messages with people congratulating you on this big day. Which message stuck to your mind the most?
- I had so many messages I didn't have time to respond yet. I feel a responsibility to reply to everybody.

I remember Mantas Kalnietis texting me before the draft. He wished me success, told me he'd keep his fingers crossed. Not many people approached me before the draft, so it was fun and delightful. 

- Did Sarunas Jasikevicius texted you yet?
- Not yet. Maybe he's waiting for the evening (laughs).

- You're experiencing a huge summer. Before the NBA draft, you decided to leave Zalgiris for Barcelona. You said you had an adamant time making your decision. What was your biggest concern?
- Obviously, I will be back to a more disciplined game style in Barcelona. And it's going to be much harder to get minutes. And with all the respect to the Lithuanian league, there are no easy games in the ACB League. You always have to play focused 100%. If not, you'll be punished every time.

It was a tough decision because Zalgiris offered something similar to Barcelona, even from the money side. But I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. Being abroad and everything... I felt very comfortable in Kaunas. But this is Barcelona. And I wanted to step out of my comfort zone.

I knew I would have a more prominent role in Zalgiris. That made my decision even harder. But at the same time, I understood that both sides could offer great opportunities.

I loved to play under pressure for Saras. I love that concentration before the games and practices. 

- Correct me if I'm wrong, but I've heard that Zalgiris made probably an even more lucrative offer financially than Barcelona. That's not so common considering Zalgiris' budget limitations. Were you surprised how much effort Zalgiris put into keeping you?
- When it takes playing in Spain, you have to consider hefty taxes. So numbers are a bit different. 

But Zalgiris contract surprised me a lot. At first, I had doubts about what to do. I was always in doubt. But Zalgiris offer amazed me, and it just made my decision harder.

- Before signing with Barcelona, you had a conversation with Sarunas Jasikevicius. Since you know him so well as a coach and person, what else did you want to hear talking to him privately?
- We had a couple of conversations. We discussed some things, Barcelona's future.

The thing is that Barcelona's age average is around 30 years or more. They needed young players to boost the team. 

Saras was very sincere. He said, 'I won't lie to you. You know me. You will come. We will push you. We will love you. It will be like in Zalgiris. You know me perfectly, and you won't see anything new'. I loved his honesty.

The ACB... He suggested me comparing the ACB with the Lithuanian league. He told me I'd get chances in the ACB. He said he couldn't promise anything in the Euroleague. But it was always like that under Saras. You always have to prove yourself, and he won't give you anything for granted. I just wanted to hear it.

I'm very intrigued to test the level of the ACB. That's the best domestic championship in Europe. That's going to be challenging. But I love challenges.

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