Arguably the most unexpected star to emerge from the Euroleague regular season was super-efficient big man Marijonas Petravicius of Lietuvos Rytas. Making his Euroleague debut at 28 years old, Petravicius is matching the best numbers of his career. Simply put, he has become the surest inside scoring force in the competition, averaging 14 points exclusively on two-pointers and free throws, both of which he makes at a rate of 72.6%. With solid rebounding added in, Petravicius is ranked eighth in performance index rating among all players entering the Top 16. His team, of course, won its regular season group, but as Petravicius says in this Euroleague.net interview, he and Lietuvos Rytas have more to prove now. Like everyone else, we have no wins and no losses, which is really starting from zero. We're excited but at the same time we realize that even if we had a good regular season, we haven't accomplished anything yet."
Congratulations on a great season so far, Marijonas. What is the mood of Lietuvos Rytas going into the Top 16? Are there higher expectations based on the team's regular season success?
"Of course, we're in good mood after finishing number one in our group. At same time, it's still too early to celebrate a good season or anything like that, because nothing's done yet. Now, we have to start again in the Top 16. Like everyone else, we have no wins and no losses, which is really starting from zero. We're excited but at the same time we realize that even if we had a good regular season, we haven't accomplished anything yet."
What is your opinion of the Top 16 opponents you will be facing: Tau, Fenerbahce and Aris?
"I think Tau is a very strong team. We saw them, because they were in the same group with Zalgiris in the first round. I haven't seen Fenerbahce play, so that's the team I know the least about. Of course we played against Aris twice already. It's an advantage to know a team like that, but it's the same advantage for them against you. In terms of the big men we'll face, I think Tau Ceramica has very good big guys at both positions. I've played before against Splitter and McDonald, and Mirza Teletovic was my teammate in Belgium. They are going to be a major challenge. Aris has different big guys than Tau, more mobile and athletic, but not with so much size. Fenerbahce, I know, has a lot of young guys playing inside, and they will be the biggest unknown for us."
Your team in general, and the frontcourt in particular, needs to overcome the injury to Matt Nielsen, one of the most versatile forwards in the Euroleague. How will you guys do that?
"Of course, we’re going to miss Matt. He brings in energy, he rebounds and he does the little things you can't see in stats, but all teammates know about what he's getting done. We brought in a new player, Jackson Vroman, and hopefully he'll replace Matt in a similar way because he's also athletic enough to run the court, rebound and defend."
If someone had told you before it started you were going to be a top-rated player on a first-place team at the end of the regular season, would you have believed them?
"Yeah, it would have been hard to believe. Last season was different for us, because we had three coaching changes. A lot of players on our team couldn't get a good fit in the game with so much change. So looking at last year would have made it hard to believe going into this one. But as I kept saying all through this regular season, how well I did had a lot to do with my teammates. We really concentrate on playing team basketball. Many of the passes I get on fastbreaks and on pick-and-rolls are certainly not a one-person job."
This has been something of a breakout season for you, hasn't it? What are the ingredients of this turnaround?
"This summer, I worked out a lot individually. Also, I think our coach trusts me, and I feel that trust. I guess I just try to work 100 percent and, as our coach keeps saying, if we make mistakes while trying hard, nothing is wrong. So, I think that a lot of hard work is paying off.
You went to study and play in the United States at a time when Lithuanian basketball was debating if that was the right road for young players. Did it work out in your case?
"I think so. I try not to look backward in my life, to see what could have been better. But I am still happy with my decision. I got a good education in the States. I also think that for big guy, the States is a good place to learn a more of a post-up, physical style of play. I am not a three-point shooter, so my advantage is more inside, so it helped me to learn there and I am happy I went."
After you're first pro season, winning the FIBA Europe Cup as the final MVP for Mitteldeutscher of Germany, did things go the way you expected?
"Well, I had a few big injuries that required major surgery and slowed me down. One of those was in my last year at university, with a torn ACL ligament. It was hard in the beginning to come back to Europe after that injury. I thought it would be easy to adjust, but after five years in the States, it was hard re-adjusting to a different kind of basketball. They I had a torn ligament in one heel, which delayed me a bit more. But after those adjustments, things started coming together more for me."
Did you always want to return to Lithuania, or did the call from Lietuvos Rytas surprise you?
"Coming back from the States, I just wanted top play basketball in Europe, not necessarily in Lithuania. Of course, it was very nice when it happened to play in my home country, and to have family and friends around. But I didn't expect it. After I played a year at Ventspils in Latvia, the call came from Lietuvos Rytas, and I was happy to return."
This season, you were reunited with an old university teammate, Chuck Eidson. Did you recruit him to Lietuvos Rytas?
"It went both ways, actually, because I was here on a one-year contract and I was negotiating to re-sign last summer, at the same time that they were recruiting him. So we talked a lot together before we both signed, because he didn't know much about Lithuania. We both kind of knew in the end that we would sign, but it was nice encouragement for each of us to talk about it first with the other."
You turned 28 this season and became a discovery for some people. How does this big season you're having change things for you?
"I still have a contract for one more year here in Lietuvos Rytas, and even then I don't try to think ahead too much. I had things happen already in my life and my career that show you can't plan ahead too much in sports. So I'll just concentrate on finishing this season well. Hopefully, we can do that. It seems like we've accomplished big things, but we have a lot left to do."