Credit: BasketNews/D.Repečka
Credit BasketNews/D.Repečka

Nigel Hayes made a corner three and forced Ettore Messina to call a time-out. Rokas Jokubaitis jumped in to congratulate his teammate on a pair of very famous Russian words we use in Lithuania. 

Points this season

Points made: 66,9
Accuracy: 40,5%
Place in standings: 18
Record max: 76
Record min: 60
Best scorer: Janis Strelnieks

He turned back to Brandon Davies and shared fist bumps. Three former Zalgiris players boosted a 14-0 run that put FC Barcelona ahead of AX Armani Exchange Milan (63-61).

Barcelona were down by 13 at the end of the third quarter (41-54). But Saras reserves managed to bring them back to the race of the two leading EuroLeague teams.

20-year-old Jokubaitis was a massive part of this comeback. He earned his 4th quarter minutes after the successful shift before halftime.

At first, he beat Sergio Rodriguez on a drive. Later, he scored easily against Devon Hall. When Jokubaitis delivered a sharp assist in the paint to his captain Pierre Oriola to cut the difference to one basket game (27-30), Saras applauded his point guard's effort.

In the fourth quarter, Jokubaitis orchestrated Barcelona to the largest run of the game. Sarunas Jasikevicius finally found a decisive lineup with his Lithuanian playmaker, Nicolas Laprovittola, Nigel Hayes, Rolands Smits, and Brandon Davies (by the way, that's the second-best Barcelona lineup this year per +/-). When Jokubaitis left the floor, Barca were up by 2 (65-63) with less than 4 minutes to play.

In summer 2021, Jokubaitis had a lucrative multi-year Zalgiris offer to stay in Kaunas. But he refused and packed for a trip to Barcelona. It was a huge topic in Lithuania, whether Jokubaitis made a mistake, giving up a starter role in Zalgiris. But watching him play crucial minutes against currently the best EuroLeague team, the answer was clear if he made a good decision to leave Zalgiris for Barcelona.

"I had all these doubts in my mind. Before the season, I wondered if I had made a good decision or not. There were doubts and everything. But as you said, this is the answer," Jokubaitis said BasketNews in an interview at Mediolanum Forum.

"Of course, sometimes I play good, sometimes it goes bad. But this game showed that I could play and help my team," he added.

Credit BasketNews/D.Repečka

Sharp, physical, hustle, and playing for the team. Such leadership of Jokubaitis helped to cool down Mediolanum Forum, which was as loud as never this season, with a season-high 7.5k fans in the stands.

Sarunas Jasikevicius didn't want to put his starters back on the court, but fatigue made his players' legs heavier. At first, Nick Calathes and Cory Higgins returned. Nikola Mirotic also showed up with two minutes remaining. However, Gigi Datome and Sergio Rodriguez killed Barcelona in style 75-70 and reached their revenge to Barcelona for a last-second upset in the Final 4 semifinal.

"For a consecutive game, we lose the control of the first half. We were -20 in Tel Aviv, and -8 in Milan again. The beginning of the game is critical because it sets the tone. When you allow 28 points in Milan, it's tough to come back," Jokubaitis analyzed the loss.

"What could I take from this lesson in Milan? The mentality. We have to be so focused on the game 24 hours before the match. We knew what was coming. It's a full gym, a very motivated opponent. We had to be much more concentrated and start with double energy. Especially playing away, you have to bring your double effort to be efficient."

In 16 minutes, Jokubaitis scored 5 points, dished four assists, and had the best +/- in Barcelona (+11). However, he was more efficient for Barcelona than just this stat line.

Jokubaitis is going through ups and downs so far. He started the season with a career-high 21 player index rating against ALBA Berlin (12 points, six assists). But he also played from 5 to 25 minutes in other EuroLeague games. He's averaging 5 points, 1.6 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per 14 minutes so far.

Jokubaitis has the fourth-best +/- in Barcelona. The second most efficient Jasikevicius lineup per +/- also includes his Lithuanian point guard. When he's on the court, Barcelona's 2-point range percentage jumps by 16.9% (66%). From the 3-point range, it also increases by 2.3% (39%).

Jokubaitis didn't play a lot in the first few ACB games, but after pouring in 22 points in Bilbao, he averaged 6.8 points, 1.6 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per 14 minutes.

"He's one of the best young players in the EuroLeague, so we're very happy to have him," Sarunas Jasikevicius told on the Urbonus podcast.

"As far as his game, we have to be realistic. He's 20-years-old. He is a 20-year-old who's giving us things already. But he's still 20-year-old. So we have to be patient with him. We have to understand that he's going to be up and down. I can't ask the same from Jokubaitis that I ask from Laprovittola or Calathes, who both are at the peak of their careers," the coach added.

As an easy-going guy as Rokas Jokubaitis is, Jasikevicius had no doubts he'd fit in this spaceship full of Barcelona stars. A 20-year-old spends most of the time with his Latvian brother, Rolands Smits. But he feels kindly accepted by all Barcelona players.

"I really didn't expect them to be so easy-going," Jokubaitis revealed his first impressions at Barca.

"I'm also a very easy-going guy, so we've bonded quickly. You can clearly see it on the court too. Yes, the games at Tel Aviv and Milan show we have a lot of things to fix. But it's a great pleasure to be in this organization. When such great personalities surround you, you also become a better person," he added.

"I didn't even notice that it's my fourth month in Barcelona. But I didn't expect to adjust to this team so quickly, both on and off the court. I don't even feel being far away from home. Yes, I miss Lithuania, but the way how things are going well, the way I'm developing here, having the best conditions and being together with such teammates, their lessons, and so on... It's a huge pleasure to be there."

Jokubaitis will stay in Barcelona for quite some time. Barcelona signed him to a four-year guaranteed deal that runs through 2025.

Jokubaitis was a runner-up for the EuroLeague Rising Star trophy last season, next to Usman Garuba, who took the award and left for the NBA.

Despite a massive change in his career, Jokubaitis remains one of the front-runners to win the prize this season. Sarunas Jasikevicius believes that in the upcoming years, this young gentleman will aim for much bigger awards.

"We really want to build the program here. We want to develop young guys and have them in our system for a while, so they get identified with the club, with the city," Jasikevicius said on the Urbonus podcast.

"In a three-year project, I hope he'll turn out to be one of the best point guards in Europe. This is my idea. But there's always an idea of the player himself, his agent, and people around, who are not always in the same line as the club. But this is life. When this point happens, we'll deal with it."

Jokubaitis knew about Saras' project before putting his signature on the Barcelona contract. He also was informed that there was no guarantee of playing time. No rose-colored glasses and no fairytales. 

But Jokubaitis knew where he was going. Even in the game against Milan, he was benched in the fourth quarter and got some harsh lessons near the sidelines, despite everything he did on the court.

"I knew they would be very demanding all the time. No matter what, I get direct feedback to my face and during video sessions. But I really like that he treats all of us equally," Jokubaitis said.

"I like this strict approach. Maybe sometimes it looks too much. But when you see the results when you see yourself executing the situations emphasized by Saras, you see how his lessons help you grow," Jokubaitis said in Milan. "I'm used to his strict approach, and I love it. Saras will always be Saras, and that's what I love. I feel how I get better every day."

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Rokas Jokubaitis

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