Zalgiris Kaunas and the entire Lithuanian basketball have had a fortune of having developed many great players throughout the decades. Some were fantastic playmakers, some unbelievable shooters, and others were great big men.
The first name that likely comes to mind to every fan is that of the great Arvydas Sabonis, a once-in-a-lifetime player and personality. While there will never be another Arvydas Sabonis, just in the past decade there have been other Lithuanian centers who have done big things, like former EuroCup Rising Stars Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas, or Sabonis's son Domantas Sabonis, or current AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan star Arturas Gudaitis, to mention a few. A candidate to keep that tradition going is a Zalgiris Kaunas rookie big man Laurynas Birutis.
In a span of just two years, Birutis went from the Lithuanian second division to Lithuanian League MVP to playing now in packed EuroLeague arenas. What is a different about Birutis, too, is that he has been preparing for his entire life to play basketball on a big stage. The son of Sigitas Birutis, a former pro, Laurynas always had the idea of growing up to follow in his father's footsteps.
"As a small kid, I went everywhere where my father played."
"I've been on basketball courts my whole life because my father played, and I was only a few years old when I was already bouncing the ball on the basketball floor," Birutis says. "My father did not push me into basketball, but him being a professional basketball player was the reason I was around basketball since I was a child, and I think that helped me to think about becoming a player."
Birutis, now 21, liked to carry the ball around with him a lot as a youngster and became accustomed to the atmosphere of gyms very early.
"I do not remember my father playing, more from the videos," he says. "But I always enjoyed basketball, watching basketball, and as a small kid, I went everywhere where my father played."
Standing at 2.13 meters today, Laurynas outgrew his father, who was 2.04 meters, some time ago. More importantly, the son certainly looks primed to build on the accomplishments of his father, who played a few years in Poland but spent most of his career with his hometown team in Siauliai, Lithuania.
His father has been there for Laurynas every step along the way, helping with advice and tips he knows well from having been a center, too.
"He always watches my games, a few times if needed. He tells me details about the game, what I did wrong and what I did right. But mostly, what's wrong," Laurynas laughs. "Having him around helps a lot. You cannot rest. He always pushes you, and he knows what to do because he went through it himself."
Birutis made his EuroLeague debut on the opening night this season and has appeared in each game so far as Zalgiris has compiled its unusual record of three home losses and three road wins. He is a part of a big-man rotation, playing behind Brandon Davies and Antanas Kavaliauskas, that gives Zalgiris great size and good depth below the rims.
While some might perceive that Birutis came out of nowhere, his progression has been quick, but not sudden, and came naturally to him. The young center grew up with Zalgiris and, upon turning 17, started developing with club's farm team in the Lithuanian second division. All the while, Birutis was a key contributor on Lithuanian national teams, helping win U18 European Championships bronze in 2015 and a U20 silver a year later.
He made big strides in the 2016-17 season, when his dominance of the second division as a 19-year old earned him a debut at the elite level domestically. He finished the 2016-17 season on loan to BC Prienai in the Lithuanian League playoffs before being loaned again last season and continuing to dominate with his hometown team, Siauliai.
"Last season we started pretty slow, but soon began to play really well and fought hard against really good teams", Birutis says about the move to go play where he can get minutes last season. "A loan was good. Zalgiris wanted me to get more minutes, and I got some confidence and a lot of playing time."
He earned plenty more than minutes, too. Birutis was chosen the Lithuanian League MVP after ranking second in scoring (15.1 ppg.) while leading the competition in rebounds (7.2 rpg.) and blocks (1.3 bpg.). With Birutis leading the way, Siauliai went from having the worst Lithuanian League season in club history a year earlier to its best record in seven years.
"I was not surprised. I just tried to play good and help the team have more wins," Birutis says. "That team had a pretty bad season a year before, and it was my hometown team, also, so I enjoyed playing there."
The young center also led the team to the Baltic League semifinals, but his most memorable game came in the Lithuanian Cup quarterfinals against none other than Zalgiris. He torched the team that sent him on loan with 35 points and 11 rebounds, bringing Siauliai close to a shocking upset.
"I played hard and tried to get a win," Birutis said. "It was a one-game quarterfinal and I knew anything could happen."
"If you want to be better, you have to work hard."
It was just one more reason for Zalgiris to bring Birutis back to its own flock this season and develop him through the games against the strongest competition available. His new teammates and coach knew they were getting a young guy whom they could not find a way to stop last season, and someone who just might develop into the next big Lithuanian thing. Just don't tell that to Birutis, who considers Arvydas Sabonis an untouchable in the history of basketball.
"I don't think I can be ever be compared to Sabonis," he said. "We enjoyed watching him, his passing skills. He was one of the greatest players ever, one of a kind."
Birutis actually considers the Spanish star Pau Gasol as his idol, and really likes the game of his compatriots Motiejunas and Valanciunas. He also does not seem bothered by any comparisons, and believes he will find his own path, and do it the only way he knows how, and the way he got to this point – by making basketball his main focus and keep working on his game.
"If you play basketball, if you want to be better, you have to work hard to be better," Birutis says. "I think that is how it's supposed to be. If you want to be good at something, you have to focus on it."
After jumping from the second division to the EuroLeague in only two years, there is no reason but to believe that Laurynas Birutis is on the right path.