Credit: žalgiris.lt
Credit žalgiris.lt

Upon receiving a multi-year deal from Zalgiris Kaunas last summer, Tyler Cavanaugh didn’t have any doubts about where he was going to continue his career.

The 27-year-old forward was part of the 2019-20 ALBA Berlin squad, one of the most fun-to-watch EuroLeague teams in recent years, despite the fact that results were usually not on their side.

2-pointers this season

47%
17,0
Points made: 17,0
Accuracy: 46,8%
Place in standings: 16
Record max: 20
Record min: 14
Most made 2FGs: Joffrey Lauvergne

Last season, he played for Lenovo Tenerife in the Spanish League and made great strides, shooting an impressive 47% from three-point range. Under coach Txus Vidorretta, he averaged 7.8 points plus 4.5 rebounds in 41 games.

Cavanaugh started his college career at Wake Forest University, where he played two seasons from 2012 to 2014. He transferred to George Washington University for his last two seasons, where he averaged 18.3 points, 8.4 rebounds as a senior.

Going undrafted meant that the Syracuse native would have to scratch and claw his way into the NBA. He wasn’t invited to the NBA Draft Combine in 2017 and had few-and-far-between offers from NBA teams to play in Summer League.

The odds were against him. That didn’t stop him from playing his first NBA game on the same court as LeBron James, nor did it stop him from scoring 16 points in his first game in which he got meaningful playing time.

Eventually, Cavanaugh signed a two-way contract with the Hawks in 2017 that was later converted to a standard NBA deal. He got into 39 games for Atlanta as a rookie, averaging 4.7 points and 3.3 rebounds on just over 13 minutes per night, but was waived when the season ended.

His next stop was the Utah Jazz and another two-way, which allowed him to appear in 11 NBA contests.

There, he met Martin Schiller, the coach who would recruit him to Zalgiris two years later.

The Austrian tactician got the best out of Cavanaugh during their G League time, as the American forward ended up as his team’s fourth scorer (17.8 points) and second rebounder (6.2 boards). The next G League season was cut short due to COVID, and then Schiller took over Zalgiris.

Alas, the slow EuroLeague start for the Lithuanian side brought the 39-year-old coach to the exit door just a few weeks into the season. Jure Zdovc was appointed as the team’s new boss, but miracles rarely happen overnight. On the Slovenian coach’s debut, Zalgiris fell to Red Star in Belgrade (61-73), dropping to 0-3.

Moreover, their next EuroLeague opponent is one of the most in-form teams right now, Olympiacos Piraeus. Zalgiris can take consolation in the fact that they have won four out of their six last encounters with the Reds at the Peace and Friendship Stadium, including a historic 78-87 escape in April 2018, which propelled them to their first Final Four in 18 years.

A few hours before the contest in Piraeus tips off, Tyler Cavanaugh sat with BasketNews for an interview about the situation in Zalgiris after the coaching change, the strengths of Olympiacos, and his presence in the NBA and the EuroLeague, which he calls “the best basketball in the world.”

Zalgiris are in a tough spot right now, having lost all three EuroLeague games played so far. What is there to blame for it?

We are a new team with a lot of new players. We’re trying to come together and mesh. In the preseason, guys were in and out with injuries. It’s taken us some time to get fully integrated and learn how to play with each other.

That’s been part of our learning process, and it’s taking more than needed. We fought hard against Red Star, and we were close to getting that win. Now, with the coaching change, there is another adjustment that we as players have to go through.

Until now, the team has only shown flashes of potential. How can some good stretches, like the ones demonstrated in Belgrade, increase?

Over time, we can learn how to play better with one another and learn each other’s strengths, like where people want the ball. That will help us grow as a group.

You come off a very demanding game against Red Star in a packed with 8,000 Serbian fans Stark Arena. Prior to that, you got a good taste of Zalgiris’s crowd. How important is it for you personally to be able to play in front of energetic fans, both at home and away?

It’s been great! After playing a year without fans and not feeling their energy and enthusiasm, to have them in the stands again is amazing. Even in Belgrade, even if they were rooting against us, it just brings extra excitement and energy to the team and to the game itself.

Credit Marko Metlas/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images



I guess that Jure Zdovc constitutes a complete departure from Martin Schiller as far as coaching principles. Does it look that way, at least at the beginning?

It’s been tough because we’ve only had one or two practices with the coach. We have three games this week, and it’s hard for him to put in a lot of stuff. Obviously, there are differences as we are learning about him and he’s learning about us. The main thing for our group is time to adjust to his style and to what he brings to the team.

What is coach Zdovc trying to instill into the team? How long do you believe it will take for you as players to buy into his style?

Zalgiris is known for their fighting spirit, energy, and defensive toughness. I’m new to the organization, but from what I’ve heard, they’ve always prided themselves on being the toughest players on the court and on winning games by playing together as a team. I think the coach is trying to instill that in us, starting from the defensive end.

Olympiacos, your next opponent, seem to be in great shape. I guess you are aware of the fact that Zalgiris have come out with a victory at their home court several times since 2018, including last season. What’s their main strength this year? Do you agree with Sarunas Jasikevicius, who said that they’re back for good?

I watched the fourth quarter of their game last night, and they’re playing at a very high level. I know Barcelona very well from playing against them in the ACB multiple times last year.

They’re a phenomenal team, but Olympiacos are very talented as well. They have some great scorers, like Vezenkov, Dorsey, Sloukas, and Fall. They have a lot of good players.

I’m excited about the opportunity to get to play them, and it’s going to be another tough challenge for us on the road in Greece. Every game is big for us, especially now that we’re down 0-3.

What kind of game do you expect?

Physical, fast-paced, with lots of energy. I’m hoping that we will take another step forward as a group, and we’ll continue to get together as a group. I’m excited about it.

Credit Romain Biard/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

At the Peace and Friendship Stadium, you’re going to face one of EuroLeague’s most improved players in Sasha Vezenkov, who has added many more layers to his game, but also Tyler Dorsey, your former teammate at the Hawks. How high do those two players rank in Zalgiris’ defensive schemes?

They will rank high. Vezenkov has started the season very well. He’s a talented player, a great shooter, and he’s added stuff to his game.

I played with Tyler Dorsey in Atlanta. He’s a very talented scorer at all three levels: very aggressive, attacking the rim, while he can also shoot the ball. Those guys are definitely going to be defensive keys for us, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.

It must have been a real transition moving from the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain to Lithuania. Which factors did you take into account before signing a 2+1 deal with Zalgiris?

Yes, the weather is much different. I really enjoyed my time playing with Tenerife.

But when Zalgiris called, I knew that it was the opportunity that I wanted to get back to the EuroLeague and to play for a great organization and basketball country. There’s not much that really needs to be said about Zalgiris. Once they called, I knew that this is where I was going to end up. The team has a great history of winning and helping players to develop and move forward in their careers.

I had a previous relationship with coach Schiller because I had played for him at the Salt Lake City Stars three years ago. So, he was a big part of the recruiting process for me.

Obviously, things have changed, but I’m very honored to be able to wear this uniform, knowing who wore it in the past. It was a no-brainer for me when I got the opportunity.

Were you surprised to learn that Schiller was let go?

Yes, I was. But obviously, we haven’t performed well so far. Everyone has a job to do.

The GM of Zalgiris (Paulius Motiejunas) made the best decision for the club, and as a player, you have to be a professional, come to work every day, and continue to improve. It’s been a difficult transition, but we just have to come together as a group and do our jobs.

Coach Vidorretta definitely loves to have a lot of shooters around. How was your experience in Spain, and to what extent did it prepare you for your EuroLeague comeback? Do you feel more ready to play in the league compared to your rookie season with ALBA?

Yes, I had a great experience in Tenerife with Txus and a phenomenal group of guys. Marcelinho, Bruno Fitipaldo, and Geo Shermadini were surrounded by many players who can shoot and make plays.

I learned a lot, and I definitely feel more ready this year to play in the EuroLeague than I did with ALBA because I’m more familiar with the European game.

In Europe, the game is so different coming from the States, and it takes time for every player to adjust. I didn’t know that coming over. I continue to learn more each day, and last year I took a big step forward in that department.

What’s puzzling you the most?

The spacing is completely different. Everything is much tighter and compact. The level of intensity compared to the NBA or the G League is night and day. Each possession means so much in Europe, and each game is very important.

In my opinion, the EuroLeague is the best basketball in the world; just the way teams prepare, the players that they have, and the tactics.

How hard was it for you to break into the NBA after not being drafted?

It’s very hard to break in, and it’s even harder to stay there. As an American, the NBA has always been my dream since I was a kid. So, it was a great experience and a fun ride. I’d love to get back there someday, but if it never happens, at least I can look back at it. I am grateful for that opportunity.

As a stretch forward, is spacing the floor equally as important in the NBA as it is in Europe?

That’s a tough question. I would say yes, with the way the game is evolving, but it all depends on the style of play. In the NBA, everything is about spacing.

Over here, there are some teams that will play more with two bigs inside and less spacing. But overall, the “stretch 4” is becoming more and more important. You see it on every team.

In an interview, you said that shooting the ball from three at a very high percentage and showing that you can defend your position could bring you back to the NBA. Do you believe that it was those two elements in your game that lured the Hawks and the Jazz into signing you?

Yeah, my ability to shoot is one of my greatest strengths. Continuing to improve on the defensive end is the main thing because of how athletic guys in the NBA are.

In December 2017, you became just the second two-way player to have his contract converted, after Mike James, who was with the Phoenix Suns at the time. Two months before that, the Atlanta Hawks had requested waivers on you. What was the story behind that shift?

It was crazy. I went to training camp with the Hawks, got cut, and went to their G League team. That was the plan all along.

They were in a rebuilding year. But they also had a few injuries to the forward position, so they just wanted me to be up there for a little bit and fill in until other guys got healthy.

I ended up having a great game in New Orleans, and they kept me on for longer. They decided to give me a multi-year contract.

In February of that year (2018), I got hurt and struggled when I came back on the floor. So, they didn’t pick up my option for the next year.

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Olympiacos Piraeus
Zalgiris Kaunas
42%
15 Position
Field goals
44%
13 Position
37,33
4 Position
Rebounds
29,33
15 Position
15,33
9 Position
Assists
14,00
15 Position
6,00
11 Position
Steals
4,33
18 Position

Teams leaders

Aleksandr  Vezenkov
14,7 PTS
70% 2P%
23% 3P%
Janis  Strelnieks
13,7 PTS
71% 2P%
62% 3P%
Aleksandr  Vezenkov
6,0 REB
3,3 DREB
2,7 OREB
Josh  Nebo
6,0 REB
3,0 DREB
3,0 OREB
Thomas  Walkup
3,3 As
1,3 TO
20 MIN
Lukas  Lekavičius
3,0 As
1,7 TO
20 MIN