Paulius Jankunas: We must keep our heads up and work hard

Paulius Jankunas, the so called heart and soul of Zalgiris, both on the court but also outside of it, had a sit-down with a local TalkBasket writer and had many interest thing to reveal. Read the entire interview.

The team‘s captain has spent an entire decade with Zalgiris, taking a one-year break to try his luck at Khimki, but quickly realised that Kaunas was his only true home.

Here is the full interview to a young and aspiring sports journalist Gabriele Dubosaite.

Curiosity led to USA

Let‘s start from the very beginning. How did your basketball journey start?
I was much taller than my classmates and I started playing basketball. Back then coaches used to look for tall children at schools and take them to basketball tryouts. A few months later coach Romualdas Bruneckas invited me to play at Arvydas Sabonis basketball school.

So you started playing basketball just because of your height?
Pretty much. People said that I should start playing hoops. As time passed by I also fell in love with the game.

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What about NCAA?
I had some offers to study in the USA but I was doing great in Lithuania and I didn‘t want to try my luck abroad.

Do you remember when Zalgiris discovered you?
It was my last year at A. Sabonis basketball school when I caught their attention, eventhough I was seventeen or eighteen years old. I wasn‘t anxious at all when I had to sign the contract with Zalgiris because I knew that I would initially join their second team.

You have participated in some NBA tryouts. Can you say that making it to NBA was your main goal?
No, it wasn‘t my goal so I didn‘t put too much hopes in it. I simply wanted to live the experience, to see how coaches work with players overseas. I knew I didn‘t have any chances to play in the world‘s strongest league – the reason why I participated in tryouts was my curiosity.

Home sweet home

After 6 years wearing the green jersey you decided to join the Russian side „Khimki“. No regrets?
No, I don‘t regret it. „Khimki“ is a great club and the team‘s chemistry was incredible back then. Also, Moscow is not that far from Lithuania so my family and parents could visit me quite often. Furthermore, I gained some experience. However the team‘s administration expected something more from foreigners. You always have to be in a good shape. It‘s easier to play for your hometown team because of the support you get from the home fans.

Did you get any offers after your first season in Russia?

Yes, I did, and even from Euroleague clubs. However, Zalgiris is the team where I started my career and Kaunas is my home. Other teams couldn‘t compete with the conditions than Zalgiris offered me. That‘s why I returned to Lithuania.

Season with Arvydas Sabonis – priceless

What has been the greatest moment of your career?
Probably my first season with Zalgiris jersey. Not because it was my debut, no. The reason was Arvydas Sabonis. Playing with the best player in Lithuania, with a living legend… it was incredible.

Is there something, some memory you would rather forget?
It‘s hard to say. The most unpleasant period of my career was the 2008/09 season, when Zalgiris was on the edge of bankruptcy. Nonetheless, it was some kind of experience. Life consists of negative and positive memories and we can’t delete them. We shouldn’t do that.

Who was your toughest opponent in the Euroleague?
I can’t pick just one. All players have their own style so it’s really hard to decide. I think that every player is dangerous here in the Euroleague, nothing more to comment.

Do you watch NBA? Do you have a favourite player?
I watch only recaps of games. I’m not a fan of it. Of course, I like Linas Kleiza and Jonas Valanciunas. Also, I think that Donatas Motiejunas deserves more minutes on the court as he doesn’t get any chances to show what he is capable of. My favourite American player in the NBA is Blake Griffin. But actually, almost all of them can dunk and make beautiful plays.

Joan Plaza – not just a coach

Let’s talk about coaches. Who was the one who left the biggest impression?
Every coach you meet in your career gives you something valuable. Antanas Sireika is one of the many coaches that I remember. He trusted every player in the team and I’m happy that I met his expectations and earned his trust. Our present coach Joan Plaza has this very unique basketball philosophy.

What was your first impression when you met him?
When I first met him, I felt that Plaza is a great person, coach, a huge idol and a guy who is trying to reach the stars not only in basketball but also in personal life.

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Keep your head up high

It’s not a secret that Zalgiris’ start in Top 16 stage wasn’t the best one…
We lost several games by just a mere single shot. It’s temporary. Zalgiris have to win and move on. Of course, it won’t be a piece of cake because our group is a tough one. Plaza told us that we have to keep our heads up, no matter what. There are many games left in Top 16 and Zalgiris can do it. We have to work hard for us and our loyal fans until there is no hope left.

Naturalization – do we really need it?

Lithuanians started talking about naturalized player in the National team squad. Yes or No?
I have two opinions. Everyone says that Lithuania is for Lithuanians. However, we should analyse every option and decide if the situation is that bad. Nevertheless, the Federation should be very careful if they decided to naturalize a player and he should be better than most of the Lithuanians in his position, obviously.

Should Lithuania let new generation of young players take over the National Team?
If time for changes comes, you can’t stop it. Older players leave, they retire and youngsters take their places. We can’t dodge it or somehow change it. It just happens on its own.

What about Eurobasket group? It‘s an interesting one… (Group B – Bosnia & Herzegovina, Latvia, Serbia, FYROM and Montenegro.)
Indeed it‘s interesting. All these teams play very similar style of basketball so it will be easier for the coaches. But I really think that it will be tough because these countries have great basketball schools.

We would like to warmly thank Zalgiris press department for their fully professional cooperation and Gabriele Dubosaite for conducting the interview. You can follow her @BBallWorldLTU