2nd appearance after a single tournament absence Team videoLet’s start againWithout Sarunas Jasikevicius and Ramunas Siskauskas, but with Arvydas Macijauskas back, Lithuania will try to make a run for the first time in the World Championship.
Three straight Olympic bronze medals from 1992 to 2000. A fourth place in 2004. A European title in 2003 and a defeat in the final game in 1995. Lithuania - the little country that has built itself a very strong reputation since becoming independent again in 1990. But the World Championship has surprisingly eluded them as they missed three of the four tournaments played since 1994, finishing a distant 7th in 1998.
This time, Lithuania is probably going to Japan without its perennial leader Sarunas Jasikevicius. Also gone since the national team last made it to the semis at the 2004 Olympics are forward Saulius Stombergas and key defensive center Eurelijus Zukauskas. At 30 and with a record like his, it’s fair to say that “Saras” may never come back to the national team. Or maybe for one last EuroBasket and one last Olympics given that Lithuania makes it to China. Regardless, Lithuania will have to get use to life without him. So why not start right now? Looking at the team that was assembled by coach Antanas Sireika, it doesn’t seem like there’s one young player who will probably be, a few years from now, at the same level than the nation’s legends, from Sarunas Jasikevicius to Sarunas Marciulionis while Arvydas Sabonis remains in a class of his own. But the talent is there, at every position. Being a nation that has never relied on one individual and always epitomized team play, the lack of a true international superstar such as Germany or Spain with Dirk Nowitzki or Pau Gasol shouldn’t be a problem. Even more people believe that after Greece won EuroBasket last year, undoubtedly one of the most competitive FIBA tournaments in the world, without a single NBA player on its roster.
Saying there’s no superstar doesn’t mean a lack of talent or leadership for Lithuania. With Jasikevicius gone, Macijauskas will take over as the main offensive threat. But the most crucial element should have been probably Ramunas Siskauskas. The Benetton forward is many players merged into one. A multi-tasking wiz, he gives the defence a boost of confidence; the offence a spark; and the playmaking a sense of creativity. His fantastic performance during this year’s Italian playoffs, leading Benetton to the title, is a reassuring sign that Siskauskas is at the top of his game. Unfortunately, Siskauskas, exhausted by a very long season, in Italy, with Benetton Treviso, decided to skip the FIBA World Champisnship in Japan at mid-July. As far as leadership goes, waiting for new faces to emerge, Mindaugas Zukauskas and Darius Songaila will assume their share of duties. They will lead a young team that has a different profile than the ones that made history for Lithuania.
Usually built on a strong outside game, with inside players staying on the dark side, the Baltic Republic will head to Japan without an impact playmaker. Even without mentioning “Saras”, who was the best point guard in Europe two seasons ago, Lithuania doesn’t have a “No. 1” who can really make a difference offensively - not necessarily by scoring, but rather by setting everyone up for baskets. At the EuroBasket in Serbia, the first five players on Lithuania's assist chart were not even point guards, which is scary. Giedrius Gustas is probably the best candidate for the job. But he has yet to prove that he can run Lithuania’s team in a major competition. As they say in the NBA, Lithuania will therefore play point guard by committee instead of one being in charge.
On the sunny side, Lithuania heads to Japan with one of the most impressive inside rotations in the world. For the first time since Arvydas Sabonis last played in a world FIBA competition 10 years ago, the two-time European champion (1937 and 2003) will have a balanced offence, with centers able to make a difference offensively. During the last Euroleague campaign, Darjus Lavrinovic, always considered the lesser player of the twins, showed flashes of brilliance with the ball in his hands. Playing at ease with his back to the basket, he was able to catch the ball in the low post and often make a convincing move with a newfound authority. Combining power, size and a much improved footwork, he was a constant threat. Therefore, he will probably be given extended minutes in Japan. With his brother Ksystof able to play more on the perimeter, Robertas Javtokas closer to the basket and Darius Songaila as the most precious invisible man, Lithuania has many more offensive options than it used to. That’s great news for Macijauskas, who will benefit greatly from this new inside threat. The only problem might be, as mentioned earlier, that without a legitimate world class point guard, Lithuania may have a tough time showing this tremendous potential. On its way to the future with a changing team, Lithuania is looking for a new identity. It will undoubtedly get some answers in Japan.