Zalgiris Kaunas has enjoyed a strong start to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season – and a tremendous finish to 2017 – to climb into a tie for third place with a 10-5 record. An undefeated December helped the cause of team captain Paulius Jankunas to be chosen as the EuroLeague MVP for December. Jankunas averaged 14.4 points and 6.2 rebounds for a 16.0 average performance index rating in December, which were all team highs. He scored in double figures in each game and made 54.4% of his two-point shots and 80.7% of his free throws as Zalgiris took down powerhouses like Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens, Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul and Olympiacos Piraeus. Jankunas has spent 14 of his 15 EuroLeague seasons with Zalgiris and is third on the EuroLeague's all-time rebounding charts and sixth in scoring. Proving what a team player he is, Jankunas told EuroLeague.net that Zalgiris's unpredictability could be a key for the team. "In our team, every player is very important, because we don't have big stars. We are strong as a team and everybody cannot play well every day," Jankunas said. "Of course, older players have to take more responsibilities to play an important role in the team, and having Lithuanian players is very important. We understand the team well and will give 100% for Zalgiris."
Hello Paulius and congratulations on being named MVP for December. Zalgiris was undefeated and you played really well. What does this award mean to you?
"Thanks a lot. Of course, I think it is important and I am happy, it proves that we are working in the right direction. The whole team earned this award because we played well in the last month and I am happy that we won five games in a row."
This is your first MVP of the month award and it arrives at age 33. What is the secret to being so consistent, year after year?
"I don't know, really! I am healthy and feeling good. I have my routines and you have to follow your team, how you practice and stuff like that. Of course, our coaches help me improve a lot and that is also very important."
You had a bad start against Panathinaikos, but ended up dominating the game. Zalgiris has been mentally strong this season; how much credit does Coach 'Saras' get for that?
"I think that the way that we are playing depends on us and, of course, like you said, on our coach. We have been mentally stronger since Saras came to the team. Especially this year, our start of the game is not good; I don't know why. I wish we could start games better. In this one, we are able to come back after a bad start and finally won it. Saras was a winner as a player and also as a coach. He likes to control everything on the court and is very professional. He prepares us very well for every game."
Your road win against Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul was one of the best this season. You were down by 5 points with less than two minutes left. How did you win that one?
"Well, like I said, right now we are fighting for all the games, it doesn't matter if we are 5 or 10 points down. We keep fighting and try to win every game - and when you are fighting and giving 100% in every game, good things happen."
Saras almost went crazy when Arturas Milaknis took a three-point shot – which he made – late in the game. Do you guys still joke about it?
"Of course we do! We joke about it a lot, including the coach! Well, he had two options after that shot - make it or not. Like coach said, if he didn't make the shot, I don't know how the atmosphere would be; we could have lost the game, but I am happy that he made that shot. A few years ago, Arturas Milaknis hit 13 midcourt shots in a row. We don't have it on video, but I can guarantee that: 13 shots in a row from the halfcourt line. Everybody went crazy, for sure, you don't see that every day! I wish we could have that on video!"
Against Bamberg, you, Antanas Kavaliauskas and Arturas Milaknis were the team's top scorers. How important is it for Zalgiris to always have Lithuanian players in important roles?
"It is very important, but in our team, every player is very important, because we don't have big stars. We are strong as a team and everybody cannot play well every day. One of our strongest points is that everybody can play well in any day, one player will do well today and in a different game, another player will do well. I am sure this is what Saras wants, too; players doing well in every game, at a high level. Of course, older players have to take more responsibilities to play an important role in the team, and having Lithuanian players is very important. We understand the team well and will give 100% for Zalgiris."
Zalgiris also managed to beat Olympiacos with a record-breaking crowd at Zalgirio Arena. What was it like to be part of that atmosphere?
"It was really great. We knew that the game was sold out and the area was going to be full three or four days before the game. Our fans helped us a lot and created a great atmosphere, which is what we needed to beat Olympiacos, one of the best teams in Europe."
You were 15 when Zalgiris won the EuroLeague in 1999. How do you compare the anticipation back then and today?
"It is different, I think. Zalgiris won the EuroLeague and we haven't done anything big yet. We just won a couple of important games and have a lot of big challenges in front of us. Everybody is following us, but still, we only have 10 victories. We have to keep improving and keep practicing because if we don't win enough games from now on, we will stay at home and not play in the playoffs. We have to fight for the opportunity to be in the playoffs and work hard for that."
Your team signed veteran playmaker Beno Udrih. How can he help the team down the road?
"I think he will help us a lot because he is a very experienced point guard. We started to practice with the team this week and he will need a little time to get used to the team, know each other better. He is experienced, a good player and he will help us a lot, that's for sure. Saras likes to play with two point guards, so he can use them how he wants them, and I am sure he is happy about that."
Zalgiris finished 2017 at full speed. What will it take to keep going that way and eventually reach the playoffs?
"I think we should be concentrated on practicing and playing at the same level that we did until now. We have to try to get even better because some of the teams looking to get to the playoffs will start playing much better. We need to be as competitive as we can."