Rokas Jokubiaitis is currently one of the most promising NBA prospects in Europe. While playing under coach Martin Schiller for Zalgiris Kaunas, 20-year old Jokubaitis is having a career year in the toughest European competition; the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague.
Jokubaitis’ role compared to the last couple of years has changed. He’s no longer the 11th or 12th man on the roster. Instead, he’s playing in all the games, making big-time plays for his team, while averaging 21:36 minutes per game in Europe’s most competitive league. Last year, Jokubaitis played in 10 EuroLeague games with Zalgiris. This year, however, he’s already equaled that number in just a couple of months. And with that, his scoring average has skyrocketed. The Lithuanian guard is currently averaging 8.8 points per game and is very efficient from the field (57.8% 2FG, 37.5% 3FG, 100% FT).
Back in November, Jokubaitis decided to withdraw his name from the 2020 NBA draft and focus on this season with Zalgiris. His plan, however, remains the same. Eurohoops caught up with the promising guard to talk about his NBA decision, this year’s EuroLeague season, his personal goals, going up against the Ball brothers in the 2018 Big Baller Brand Challenge Games, and the 2021 NBA draft. He also names his best Lithuanian starting lineup.
You had many ups and downs as a team to start this EuroLeague season. How do you feel about it?
Rokas Jokubaitis: In the beginning, everything was fine. We went 4-0, 5-1. But, the EuroLeague is a tournament where every team is very hard to beat. There is no such thing as a bad team and a good team. We have to play better basketball. We lost six games in a row. The beginning of the season so far has had its ups and downs, but that’s normal in this competition. We made some improvements in the practices and the domestic league in Lithuania, so we’ll start to get better and win EuroLeague games again.
Compared to the last couple of years, your minutes have increased, you have the ball more in your hands, and you also finish out some games. How important is this for you long-term?
RJ: During the last couple of years, I was in the team to only play some limited time and give a breather to the team leaders in the domestic league. In the Euroleague, I was the 11th or 12th player and in general, it wasn’t for me to play. I got some minutes, but only when we were up by like 15-20 points. I didn’t think about it too much, that I’m not getting minutes in the EuroLeague. For every young player, their time will come sooner than later. For this season, to be honest, I didn’t expect that much playing time in the EuroLeague. It was very surprising for me. But right now, I’m very happy and I’m trying to do my best and show coaches that I can be more productive, and help the team win.
What’s one part of your game you want to improve the most during this season?
RJ: When I’m getting more playing time, I can see things that I can work on more. I want to play better overall defense; better team defense and better one-on-one defense. Sometimes when you’re tired, you have to think a little bit more on the court. Especially during clutch moments. The work is a learning process. As for the offense, shooting from the distance, off the dribble, and in spot-up situations. I also want to be able to control everything under pressure.
Coach Schiller seems to trust you in key moments during games. What’s your relationship with him like?
RJ: He’s a very great coach. We have good chemistry both on the court and off the court. Every time he walks towards me, he always asks how I’m doing. He wants to discuss things. He’s a new coach in Euro-basketball, and he wants to know what the players are thinking. He asks for our opinion. He’s a very smart coach. He’s more of a positivity kind of guy. Right now, we’re not doing great and some people can say that he’s a bad coach and doesn’t fit in the EuroLeague, but the season is a long run. Even if we’ve lost six in a row, it doesn’t mean that in the end, we’ll be at the bottom of the standings. We’re taking it step-by-step, and the coaching staff is doing everything they can to make our team like one punch.
Talking about coaches, what was it like playing for Sarunas Jasikevicius? What’s one piece of advice he gave you that stood out to you?
RJ: The one thing he told me two years ago, I will remember my whole life. He said:
‘Everywhere, in the practices, the games, the shootaround’s, you have to come 100% concentrated, and do everything on the maximum. When you do things in your maximum capabilities, then we can talk about improvements.’
This advice stood out to me, I’ll think about it my whole life. It helped me a lot and it is one of the best pieces of advice that helped me improve my game.
Back in November, you withdrew from the NBA draft. What was the reason behind that decision?
RJ: It was a very difficult decision. I didn’t expect anything from this year’s NBA draft. At the beginning of the season, the projections were that I could be selected in the second round. In the ESPN Top-100 draft prospects, I went up from No. 99 to No. 49. In the last days of the decision making, it was very hard. We talked with my agent and my family. In this season, the NBA draft will take place in the summer, so during this year I can show myself even better and try to make it to the first round next year.
It would be very difficult this year. The season had already started, it was going great, so I decided to stay here, be concentrated with Zalgiris and the EuroLeague 100%. But, with this decision, we didn’t lose anything. Next year, if all goes well, at least I’ll get picked in the second round.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
RJ: It’s a difficult question. For me, the first thing that comes to mind has to do with the EuroLeague. Being one of the best players in the EuroLeague. In five years, I see myself in one of the best clubs in the EuroLeague, achieve something, win the trophy. The first option is to be in one of the best teams in the EuroLeague. And then, I don’t know what will happen with the NBA, if I will make it or not… but of course, to be in the NBA. Everyone’s dream is that.
Looking at the NBA now, is there any player you try to “steal” some moves from?
RJ: One of the most obvious answers is Goran Dragic. For me, he’s one of the most similar players to me. I try to watch his game as much as I can.
Growing up, which were the players you idolized?
RJ: I liked watching Rajon Rondo with the Boston Celtics. Of course, we all grew up with LeBron James or Michael Jordan, but if I had to choose one who impacted me the most, it would be Rajon Rondo.
Back in January of 2018, you played in the Big Baller Brand Challenge Games, playing against LaMelo and LiAngelo Ball. What was that whole experience like for you? After all, you had 31 points…
RJ: It was the first time in my career where I had the chance to play against international players, in front of a huge crowd. It was a very tense game. I felt very good. I played against some very popular athletes from all around the world, and all eyes were on us. I’m not going to say that I stole the show, but it was something like that. We almost won and I had a pretty good game. I don’t remember that I scored 30+ points, but it definitely was one of the best games ever and the best experience I ever had.
Make a starting lineup with the best Lithuanian players of all time:
PG: Sarunas Jasikevicius
SG: Arvydas Macijauskas
SF: Edgaras Ulanovas
PF: Domantas Sabonis
C: Arvydas Sabonis