A busy summer in Kaunas has seen Zalgiris welcome five newcomers and wave goodbye to retiring legend Robertas Javtokas at the end of a glorious career. Importantly, another Lithuanian icon, Sarunas Jasikevicius, returns for another season as head coach and he has three new American players in the form of point guard Dee Bost and center Brandon Davies, both arriving from AS Monaco, and power forward Aaron White from Zenit St Petersburg. Another new signing is French swingman Axel Toupane, who appeared in the EuroLeague with Strasbourg in 2013 before heading to the United States. Finally, Zalgiris added another talented point guard in Vasilije Micic, who previously played in the competition with Bayern Munich and Crvena Zvezda.
Ball-handling duties will be shared between new arrivals Bost and Micic. Bost is a dangerous scorer who averaged 8.4 points during his only previous EuroLeague campaign with Stelmet Zielona Gora in 2015-16, while Micic arrives after a great year with Tofas Bursa in Turkey where he averaged 13.3 points and 3.9 assists. After starting every game last season, Canadian sharpshooter Kevin Pangos is back to provide more of his blend of perimeter shooting and non-stop hustle, and another deep threat comes from Arturas Milaknis, who enters his eighth EuroLeague season with the club. And there will be an enhanced role for homegrown youngster Paulius Valinskas, who will hope to earn the right for more playing time in the coming campaign.
The frontcourt will be powered by arguably Zalgiris’s most important two players from last season’s impressive challenge: do-everything forward Edgaras Ulanovas and evergreen veteran Paulius Jankunas, who is ready to roll again after a brilliant season which saw him start every game and average 13 points. Ulanovas, now 25 years old, has been getting better with every passing season and he will receive plenty of support from exciting new arrivals Toupane and White, whose all-around game played a prominent part in Zenit’s progression to last season’s EuroCup quarter-finals. In the paint, Jankunas will be joined by well-traveled newcomer and powerful inside presence Davies, with additional rebounding skills coming from the experienced Antanas Kavaliauskas. The roster is completed by another product from the club’s famous youth system, 21-year-old Martynas Sajus.
PLAYER TO WATCH
In his first EuroLeague season in 2014-15, Edgaras Ulanovas averaged 5.4 points per game. The following year he increased that tally to 6.3 points, before finishing last season with another big jump up to 7.7 points per game. The trajectory is clear, and Ulanovas can continue his development in the coming campaign by becoming an even more important member of Jasikevicius’s rotation. His impact will not only be measured in numbers, because he is the kind of player whose importance does not always show up on the stats sheet, but his versatility, willingness to chase every lost cause and ability to lift his teammates – and the ever-loyal home fans in the magnificent Zalgirio Arena – will play a major part in Zalgiris’s challenge.
Expectations in Kaunas have been raised by last season’s eye-catching efforts, which saw Jasikevicius’s men stay in contention for a place in the playoffs all the way until the final few weeks of the regular season. Repeating that feat will not be easy and the Lithuanian powerhouse needs its new backcourt combination of Bost and Micic to quickly click into gear – another age-defying campaign from Jankunas would also be handy. Zalgiris has been handed a tough start with five of its first seven games coming on the road, but that is balanced out by a run of four home games out of five from the start of February. If Zalgiris is still in contention then, Zalgirio Arena will be rocking.