|Of the five teams tied for the Euroleague's best record after five weeks, the biggest surprise might be Zalgiris Kaunas. That's not because Zalgiris is exceeding low expectations, but because superstar Tanoka Beard has been injured since opening night. His absence, however, has revealed just how much talent is ready and waiting in Kaunas, most ready of all being 21-year-old forward Paulius Jankunas. After a summer spent leading Lithuania to the under-21 World Championship title and also playing at EuroBasket 2005, Jankunas has exploded in the Euroleague. He leads Zalgiris with 14 points per game and is the youngest player ranked among the Euroleague's best 15 in performance index rating. Still a university student, Jankunas shows in this Euroleague.net interview that he can keep his head on straight about his and the team's good start. "One or two bad games and our situation can change for the worse," Jankunas cautions. "We have to work hard and to learn understand each other better on the court. If we do that, we will get what we deserve."
Hi Paulius. Tanoka Beard has missed four Euroleague games and Zalgiris is 4-1. Some people are surprised, how about you?
"We had a tough time when we lost Tanoka Beard and other important players. Of course, we didn't dare to expect that we would have such a good beginning to the season with our key players out. But other players got more minutes and could adjust their game to the Euroleague level. These back-up players, like Darius Silinskis, tried to prove themselves, and their efforts partly compensated for Beard's absence. We had difficult games, and with Beard on the court everything could be much easier. To be honest, I didn't expect such a good start even with Tanoka Beard healthy. I knew that I must have my head in every game and help my team as much as I can. It seems to have paid off."
What has been the secret to this success of Zalgiris so far?
"Zalgiris has many good players this year. We got playmaker Ed Cota back after he had played in Zalgiris before, and he is familiar with our style. He is very creative on the court. We added a rock-solid player in Reggie Freeman, who shines on the both ends of the court. He is player who has ability to perform in the clutch. I like him a lot. This year we have sharpshooter Larry Ayuso, who can shoot and penetrate. I think we have a really good roster. On the other hand, our coaches came up with great ideas how to use effectively different rotations in specific game situations."
You guys aren't just winning, but giving teams like Tau Ceramica and Benetton their first losses. After such a great month, are the Zalgiris players thinking bigger things are possible this season?
"After every victory, you start to think that it would be great to have another one. When you have many wins in the bucket, you start to think how far you can go. But the main goal remains the same: the Top 16. We are 4-1 now, but it's nothing yet. A few lost games and you realize that your team is in a tight spot. I had such a bad experience with the Lithuanian national team in EuroBasket 2005, when we won all the games except the most important quarterfinal match. Now, we have to fight for our place in the Top 16. When we get there, we will think of bigger things then."
Since coming to the Euroleague two seasons ago, you have shown flashes of great potential. Is consistency the big difference this year, so far?
"I am very happy that things are working out best for me lately. I feel that I am doing my thing on the court. I think playing in youth and men's national teams gave me very valuable experience. This year, I played in the Lithuanian national team for the very first time, but the coaches trusted me and I wasn't just a bench player during EuroBasket 2005. I have gained new skills, gained confidence. I am more mature now and that reflects in the quality of my game. I turned into a self-confident player."
Of course, you are playing more and more minutes. At 21, do you feel ready for all the extra responsibility coming your way?
"I don't have any problems with it. I never think about being the top scorer before the game. I just set my mind for a hard fight. It doesn't matter if I have a bad day on the offensive end, I fight for my team with all my heart. I think when I play like that I don't have to care about my stats. I play for my team and I am not trying to collect as many points as possible in every game. The most important thing for me is a victory in every match. Of course, it feels even better after we've won a game when I've had a good performance, but I am not obsessed with thoughts of how to shoot for stardom."
Before this season, you only tried 7 three-pointers, making just one. In the first five games of 2005-06, you are 5-for-14 from the three-point line. Is this an important change in your game?
"Three-pointers have become a big part of my game this season. I try to polish my long-distance shot during the practices and after them. I worked a lot during the last summer to make my three-point shooting more accurate. You know your own weaknesses and you work on them. I think being sharp from long distance is very important for me because that makes me a more versatile player. With my shot range extended to three-point territory, I become a dangerous player for the opposing defense."
After the game in Bamberg, Coach Sireika said that you and Jonas Masiulis are proving why you were runners-up at the world juniors, and just last summer, winners at the under-21 world championships. How much did those experiences influence you?
"I faced the best young basketball players from the whole world in the under-21 World Championship. I was able to prove myself in matchups with great players. That championship title gave extra confidence to me as a player, because you don’t win world championships everyday. I appreciate that experience very much."
What about the experience, just a couple of years ago, of playing your first Euroleague game alongside Arvydas Sabonis, winning at home against Panathinaikos and scoring 12 points? For a kid from Kaunas, that must have been a dream come true.
"Sabonis was my hero. Since nursery school, he was like a god to me. When we were kids, we all used to repeat these magic words: 'Sabonis', 'Zalgiris', 'Kaunas'. I started to play for Zalgiris at a very young age and it was a pure miracle to me. I was very excited about that. When I found out that Arvydas Sabonis would play for Zalgiris, too, I couldn’t say a word. It was one of the biggest dreams come true."
It seems like half the Zalgiris roster is from Kaunas, a small city by Euroleague standards. How special it is to represent your hometown team at the highest level of European basketball?
"I am very happy to represent my hometown, Kaunas, in Europe. It’s fantastic that a regular guy like me can play for Zalgiris - a team that has very long history and traditions. I think Kaunas is a well-known town among basketball lovers. In every game, we want to show that we are not from basketball's periphery. I want everybody to know that we play the highest-level basketball here. I think we are successful at this point. Every team that plays against Lithuanian teams - it doesn’t matter if the team's from Kaunas, Vilnius or Siauliai - knows our basketball school, our players. And it’s out of respect for our basketball."
Looking ahead, and given how much winning experience the team is getting, when Tanoka comes back to full health, how far can Zalgiris go?
"It’s hard to say how far we can go, because there are many circumstances that are hardly predictable. Today you are playing, tomorrow you and three of your teammates are injured. I believe that we will be in the Top 16, but you cannot be 100 percent sure about anything when you play in the Euroleague. One or two bad games and our situation can change for the worse. At first, we have to get all our injured players back. We have to work hard and to learn understand each other better on the court. If we do that, we will get what we deserve."