Credit: BNS
Credit BNS

Donatas Motiejūnas

Donatas  Motiejūnas
Donatas  Motiejūnas
MIN: 18.99
PTS: 8.25 (54.41%)
REB: 4.25
As: 0.88
ST: 0.38
BL: 0.5
TO: 1.25
GM: 8

Following a nine-year NBA and CBA stint, Donatas Motiejunas came back to Europe to bolster AS Monaco's frontcourt. The Lithuanian big, known for his post-up skillset, was selected with the 20th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves but it was with the Houston Rockets that he got to enjoy his brightest NBA days.

In the aftermath of his EuroLeague breakout season with Polish side Asseco Prokom in 2011-12, the born and raised in Kaunas forward-center became a force to reckon with in the world's most prestigious basketball league. He played in a total of 251 games, averaging 7.3 points and 3.8 rebounds while having significantly better numbers during the 2014-15 season (12 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists).

When undersized big men were gradually becoming in-fashion, Motiejunas was following a different path, leaving the Old Continent for the States. After almost four years in China and an uneventful NBA comeback in order to join the ranks of his "favorite team of all times", the San Antonio Spurs, it was time for him to move on.

EuroLeague newcomers AS Monaco wanted him to be their starting center and he readily obliged. Over 8 EuroLeague contests, the 31-year-old has averaged 8.3 points on almost 60% on two-point shooting, 4.3 rebounds and 9.4 in PIR.

What's more important, the French squad lies within playoff reach, standing at 4-4. A spectacular 97-80 thrashing of seven-time champs CSKA Moscow has undoubtedly been the highlight of the season for the ambitious team that has dropped only one home game, to last year's finalists FC Barcelona in overtime.

BasketNews had the chance to discuss with Donatas Motiejunas a variety of issues, ranging from Monaco's potential and Emmanuel Mudiay joining/leaving Zalgiris, to EuroLeague after Jordi Bertomeu, the Houston Rockets' treatment of rookies and the previous administration of the Lithuanian federation that "put the country's basketball almost under the ground".

First of all, how does it feel to be back in Europe after almost a decade?

It's weird. From a basketball standpoint, a lot of things remain the same. It's a good feeling for me to test myself in a different kind of basketball. I'm really happy that this opportunity came for me and Monaco showed interest in bringing me in.

Credit Gianfranco Cavassa/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

What was the decisive factor that weighed on your decision to sign with Monaco?

They are a newcomer team. I knew I would have the chance to help the team get wins. I had multiple conversations with coach Mitrovic that really turned my head around and made me decide to go to Monaco instead of waiting for China or something else.

Monaco got even stronger over the course of a few weeks, adding Mike James, Will Thomas and Dwayne Bacon to their roster. Do you think that those additions changed the team's level?

Of course. When I arrived, we only had eight players in training camp. Preparation was definitely not easy. There was a lot of uncertainty and questions about the quantity of our roster. Usually, some players don't fit, get cut, or expect NBA contracts. If they don't get it, they open up to other options.

Monaco did an amazing job of acquiring those guys and adding them to the roster. The team that was projected to be among the last-placed in the EuroLeague standings, became a playoff contender. That's where we are at this point.

What was keeping you away from making a EuroLeague comeback all those years? Were you ever tempted to leave the NBA or China in order to return?

After my back injury in the NBA, I was looking for a team where I could get my confidence back and play a lot of minutes. At that time, China showed up. Only two imports are allowed there.

So, China was the perfect resuscitation for me from a player's standpoint, to get my rhythm and my confidence back. I was really happy being there and I enjoyed it. This past year, with all the COVID situation, there was a lot of uncertainty.

We didn't know if the Chinese League would be with or without imports. All this decision-making dragged out until the end of August and I decided not to wait anymore, bring myself back to Europe and see how I'm going to do here.

Playing-wise, did you miss Europe?

It's different. Of course, I grew up with European basketball. I left for the NBA and China, where basketball is completely different. Then, I had to come back to Europe.

Of course, I miss it and I'm super excited to finally be able to challenge myself again in Europe.

If, for Mike James, this one is a "revenge season", how would you describe the current campaign yourself?

It's not a revenge season for me. I'm already 31, so I just want to enjoy basketball, show the experience I've gathered through all those years, and hopefully, stay in Europe for the rest of my career if that's going to be an option.

If not, I want to showcase myself, help my team win as many games as possible, make the EuroLeague playoffs and win the French championship if everything is good. It would be the club's first and everyone is talking about it. There are a lot of challenges ahead of us.

Of all the former NBA players having signed with EuroLeague clubs, which one was the least expected?

(Sighs) It's hard to say... That's the crazy part about NBA basketball. One day you're on a team having a guaranteed contract and the next day you're out and you have to see what else there is on the table.

I wouldn't say that anything is unexpected. Maybe Mudiay going to Zalgiris Kaunas, my hometown team. The situation didn't work out for him the way the club, the city and he wanted to. From that point of view, it was probably one of the "hottest" purchases of the summer, especially for a team like Zalgiris.

It didn't turn out the way it was supposed to and they parted ways super early. I was surprised by them not giving him more time and also by the fact that they managed to sign him.

In this vein, how can a player like your teammate, Dwayne Bacon, adapt? He's had a promising EuroLeague debut against CSKA, but what should we expect from him down the road?

I think it's going to be pretty easy. He's a three-position player. The team expects him to be a good shooter, aggressive and play good defense. He's super strong at all those three characteristics. So, I don't think he's going to have any issues adapting to European basketball.

What's your view on the new generation of Lithuanian bigs? Domantas Sabonis, Jonas Valanciunas are excelling in the NBA. How strong was Arvydas Sabonis's legacy, also for you?

It's amazing. I played for his basketball school, representing his junior team. His legacy will carry on for many more years to come. His son is putting his footprint on the basketball map. For our small country, this is an amazing advance and it's nice to see our basketball developing.

Being born and raised in Kaunas and having also played for Zalgiris, were you keeping track of what they were doing?

Always, no question. That's my team. I always say that I grew up in that city, on those streets playing basketball. My blood is green. I always say that.

Credit BNS

Do you wish you could have been part of the team that made it to the 2018 Final Four?

No, I was a small kid when they won the EuroLeague in 1999. I remember it like it was yesterday; how they beat Kinder Bologna and how they had won the EuroCup a year before. It was something unreal in the city. Everyone was enjoying the victory.

In 2018, they couldn't go all the way but it was an amazing celebration for the whole country. A lot of times, people say that Zalgiris is not only a team from Kaunas but from all of Lithuania.

I felt more honored and excited because I'm still a fan - and I'm going to be a fan till my last days, regardless if I'm playing there or not.

In a recent interview, you said that "EuroLeague going away from FIBA was a really good decision" for them. As an athlete who has practically lived and played almost everywhere, do you think that something positive can come out of a potential collaboration between the two sides?

Let's not forget that the NBA has put all the clubs together. Every team has its own world and a stake in the league. EuroLeague is headed in the same direction. Every team gets a piece, players have started a union, making sure that they get a piece of the commercials.

I see the EuroLeague turning towards the NBA format, which is nice. If FIBA decides to create again something new, I don't see how the clubs can be happy. Momentarily, they could offer more money, but in the long run, I don't think that the clubs will win.

That's the turning point in the whole argument: FIBA wanted to control everything, while EuroLeague wanted to separate. I think that was the right decision to make. The EuroLeague today is the second-strongest competition on the planet. Just go under the umbrella of a big corporation that will control everything and give the revenue or commercial money away, I don't think that's logical.

It will be interesting to see what the new boss of EuroLeague will do, who the teams are going to pick after Bertomeu and the direction they're going to choose. I've heard some rumors, like EuroLeague wanting to separate from EuroCup.

We see how the NBA makes money through TV, the season pass and other stuff. There's a lot of money to be made in those small things.

Apart from basketball in Europe which has improved, in which respect has Donatas Motiejunas also gotten any better as a player?

That's one of the reasons why I left Europe; I knew that in the NBA I could become a better player in a short period of time.

I knew that there was going to be facilities and coaches, but I didn't expect one thing: that some people can also break you and your body. I had to put it behind with the people I had around me. I got a lot of things from the NBA and a lot of good memories from that journey. At the same time, I had some bad memories - and that's part of life. I'm excited that the journey took me to so many different places.

Which part of the NBA was totally unexpected for you?

A lot of things. For a young player like me, the craziest part was the Houston Rockets' attitude towards the rookies. It didn't matter how high you were drafted, the first year you were going to spend it in the G League, regardless of where you're coming from, or how good of a player you are. That was their philosophy at the time.

Without any logical explanation of what we were trying to achieve, they said they would send me to the G League just because I was a rookie. It was really unexpected to see that kind of situation. But that experience made me better as a person and a player.

Donatas, you are one of the few remaining bigs who rely heavily on fundamentals rather than on athleticism: footwork, skyhook, up and under, jump hook, fakes, spin moves, use of both hands. Are those moves enough to render a center or forward relevant nowadays?

Of course. It's more than enough, you can see that.

One of the players I always followed, basketball legend Luis Scola, used to come to Kaunas. I was amazed to see that he shot only with his right hand, but his footwork was so well-developed that even if opponents double-teamed him, he was still able to take a shot the way he wanted to.

I came to develop my game to a point where I get to be in charge, regardless of who's guarding me. When you get under the basket, athleticism doesn't mean anything. It's all about the patience of understanding and reading a situation.

Fundamental basketball is undervalued these days. There's not a lot of players who play like that anymore.

Overall, the NBA took a big shift towards the NBA at one point. European teams wanted guys that were jumping like crazy and were very athletic. I don't think that player like me will have a problem finding a job.

Credit USA Today – Scanpix

You have declared yourself a huge fan of Bayern Munich and the German national team, citing their team principles as the main reason. "They don't have superstars like Messi or Ronaldo, but they play together, sacrifice for each other," was your quote on the issue.

Which would be the basketball equivalent of Germany? Is there any team that you particularly enjoy watching or support because of their style of play?

The San Antonio Spurs. They play like that for years! They won many championships playing as one unit, without any crazy superstars, and all going for the same goal. They're most likely my most favorite team of all time. When they were playing, it was a symphony of basketball (laughs).

You are running an Elite Basketball Camp for Lithuania's teenagers (14-16 years old) that gives them the chance to prepare for the men’s national team, the Euroleague, and the NBA. What's the most common misconception among those young players and how well prepared were you before making the transition from Europe to the States?

The biggest misconception among teenagers nowadays - and I'm not talking about FC Barcelona or Real Madrid where everything is built from football- is the physical preparation. I only developed physically at 22, which means that I went to the NBA definitely not ready.

There's no one to blame because there is nothing like that in Europe. A lot of young players are working with strength and conditioning coaches who have no idea what to do. So, the development of strength and conditioning is at the lowest level, actually.

In the States, they start working with guys at the age of 14-15, building their bodies and preparing them for basketball. When 18 comes, they already look like men.

In Lithuania, an 18-year-old kid who comes to a basketball court looks like he's 15. Strength is so behind in Europe that it blows my mind! It's a real problem.

Is there any chance that we might see you again in the Lithuanian NT jersey?

We'll see. I didn't have a chance to talk with the national team coach. There's a lot of things I have to re-think. I've had such a bad experience going there throughout my whole career that I didn't have the chance to work with the right people. So many summers were wasted that it's hard to say right now (if I'm going back).

I need to see how the season goes, sit down, think about it, and then make a decision; talk with the coach and see what his plan is. It's important to hear both sides instead of jumping to a decision.

Credit FIBA Media

Did you have a problem with the federation?

The federation changed. The previous administration put our basketball almost under the ground. Under this new administration, our basketball was at its peak, winning medals.

After the federation changed, we had a couple of good years but then it was all downhill. Let's hope that this federation will bring basketball back to its tracks.

For me, it's more painful to watch the junior teams win nothing. They're telling us that our generations aren't as good as they used to be. That's a lie. Something's wrong. Some people are not doing their job right.

So, under which conditions would you consider returning?

If they approached me, I wouldn't say yes 100%. I have to make a personal decision. Over the last four summers, I've had a lot of time to prepare myself for the season. I had no major injuries.

Now, going back to the national team means that I will have a bigger load to deal with. I have a personal coach who is handling all the load management and I got to talk with him to see what his perspective on the situation is going to be.

Overall, I am happy that finally the right coach was picked by the federation. This coach (Kazys Maksvytis) was going to coach the national team but the previous administration picked the coaches that they liked.

Right now, everything is on the right path for the national team to be successful.

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Points this season

Points made: 78,5
Accuracy: 43,3%
Place in standings: 5
Record max: 97
Record min: 65
Best scorer: Mike James