There will be half a dozen new faces in the basketball-loving city of Kaunas where the Zalgiris roster has gone through a facelift over the summer break. The changes start on the bench where Martin Schiller was brought in to replace the legendary Sarunas Jasikevicius as the new head coach. On the court, new faces represent a mix of proven EuroLeague players and up-and-comers ready to show what they can do on the big stage. Big men Augustine Rubit and Joffrey Lauvergne fortified the Zalgiris front line where the Lithuanian champion also added a big talent in teenager Marek Blazevic. Swingman Patricio Garino is another of the cub's prized signings. EuroLeague rookie Steve Vasturia and a Zalgiris returnee Tomas Dimsa complete the list.
The Zalgiris backcourt shapes up to be strong and deep. Thomas Walkup will be the centerpiece of this group. Already in his third season with the club, Walkup can do just about anything on the floor and his transformation into Zalgiris's top playmaker, who averaged 5.5 assists per game last season, has made him one of the cornerstones of this team. Walkup will be sharing the playmaking duties with homegrown talent Lukas Lekavicius and the two will have plenty of weapons around them. Marius Grigonis, back in action after undergoing foot surgery after just 10 games last season, returns as a primary offensive weapon. The addition of Garino, another player whose previous season was cut short by an injury, gives Zalgiris more versatility on the perimeter, where Arturas Milaknis remains one of the most dangerous three-point shooters in the league. A lot more will be expected from Rokas Jokubaitis, a 19-year old playmaker who could be the future of this team, while Vasturia and Dimsa, two dangerous shooters, look to prove themselves at this level. Vasturia arrives in the EuroLeague for the first time, while Dimsa returns for the first time since 2015.
It has been a while since Zalgiris had this much experience on the front line. Lauvergne and Rubit are proven EuroLeague commodities and potential double-digit scorers who will both contribute to making Zalgiris tough to beat on the boards. Nigel Hayes, another reliable rebounder, is in his second season with the club and eager to showcase that he is a much better in scoring than his 6.3 points per game from last year would suggest. Hayes's ability to connect from downtown would be especially big for Zalgiris to stretch things and open the floor up for the rest of the team. Another second-year player, center Martinas Geben will look for more opportunities to be more productive. Karolis Lukosiunas also got his first taste of the EuroLeague last season. Blazevic is the only big man without any previous EuroLeague experience, but the 19-year old center represents a big investment for the future. All of them will have a very special mentor in one of EuroLeague's all-time greats, Paulius Jankunas. The power forward enters his 18th season with 341 games played, which is tied for second place all-time with Juan Carlos Navarro, just 11 appearances behind the all-time leader Felipe Reyes of Real Madrid.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Zalgiris's biggest signing of the summer was star center Joffrey Lauvergne. The big man, who will turn 29 years of age just a couple days before the season opener, is motivated to get back to the top after a nagging leg injury forced him to miss almost all of the 2019 calendar year, including the Final Four in Vitoria-Gasteiz. Lauvergne is a do-it-all center who has the size, athleticism and finesse to rule the EuroLeague paints. He was the EuroLeague's rebounding season leader back in 2013-14 when he averaged 8.6 per game. He once averaged 32 minutes per game, but Lauvergne has more often than not spent fewer than 15 minutes on the floor in a star-studded Fenerbahce frontcourt the past two seasons. More playing time could lead to much greater production, which Lauvergne is surely capable of.
It seems that a lot has changed in Kaunas since their last EuroLeague game, especially with a new man roaming the sidelines. But Zalgiris not only kept the majority of the team that was battling for its third consecutive playoff spot last season, but added several proven EuroLeague players to create a level of depth that Zalgiris might not have had in recent years. What Zalgiris would certainly like to avoid is another slow start to the season. Zalgiris had just three wins in the first 15 games last season and started with a 3-6 record a year earlier. Both times Zalgiris made a late surge to overcome its slow start, but it is certainly a situation the team does not wish to find itself in again. If it manages to do just that, make no doubt that Zalgiris has all the tools to be battling for the playoffs once again.