Benas Matkevicius talks Lithuania’s summer, FIBA rules, and “giving color” to basketball

2023-09-07T10:59:34+00:00 2023-09-07T13:54:10+00:00.

Cesare Milanti

07/Sep/23 10:59

The Lithuanian national team assistant coach spoke to Eurohoops before their clash against Slovenia in the 2023 FIBA World Cup

By Cesare Milanti /

MANILA, Philippines – The 2023 FIBA World Cup has been home to some of the best basketball players in the world – despite some absences -, with elite coaching staff sitting on the benches of arenas between Okinawa, Jakarta, and Manila.

One of the most intriguing figures who belongs to this stage is Benas Matkevicius, International scout for the Boston Celtics since 2014 and assistant coach of the Lithuanian national team for 10 years now. In an exclusive interview with Eurohoops, he praised this group, who entered the Top-8 basketball nations in the world.

“I have a good comparison because I have 10 different summers of experience working for different teams, different locker rooms, personalities, and characters”, he first said, “And this is probably one of the best groups – if not the best – I’ve been around. Underdog mentality, everybody is together from day one, everybody has fun and enjoys each other’s company, which matters a lot on the court”, Matkevicius stated on Lithuania’s squad.


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The path to the 2023 FIBA World Cup hasn’t been the easiest one, but once landed in Manila, they went on a 5-0 run – including a historic win against the USA – before losing against Serbia in the Quarter-Finals. “Once we found our groove and rhythm in Taiwan, where he had our last preparation games, especially against Latvia, from that point on we felt really confident and believed in each other even more. We had three losses in a row in preparation, but it didn’t rattle us. Our locker room was together, which shows significance in terms of believing and enjoying playing together. This summer has been special”, he added.

One of the main topics discussed in Manila during the most anticipated tournament of the year has been the adjustments NBA players had to go through once landed in the FIBA landscape. When asked who had the better showing in doing that at the World Cup, he had one name in mind. “Valanciunas!”, he said laughing about the Lithuanian leader, who has been averaging 13.6 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.

Then, he analyzed it better. “It’s hard to say. Probably Mikal Bridges is the one who stands out the most for me, the first player who comes to mind, because he has been the most reliable shooter for Team USA and the most reliable threat from the outside, coming off screens and making decisions, not being rattled”, he said about the Brooklyn Nets star, pointing out a big difference between guards and centers.

“For shooters is probably easier to adjust than for big guys. The space matters and when they don’t feel the space under the basket, when you see it that crowded in the paint, it can rattle you a little bit and take a little bit more of your moves, you don’t feel comfortable. It’s like having a small room at home, you are used to living on your own, and all of a sudden there’s a person there: and you feel crowded a little bit. It’s the same with big guys”, Benas Matkevicius added.

The most emotional story of this 2023 FIBA World Cup, basically without any doubts, is Latvia entering the Quarter-Finals stage, where they only lost by two points against Germany, the favorite on paper against the Baltic team. Talking about his “neighbors”, the Lithuanian assistant coach points out an important topic when referring to Luca Banchi’s national team.

The unavailability of one Latvian superstar, in fact, could have benefited in a way. “With Porzingis and without Porzingis, it’s probably two different expectations, two different teams. If Porzingis had been there, it would probably be even more of a threat, but it could also combine with pressure or a different sense of team. In this way, instead, you have an underdog mentality, you have a different psychology, a different impact with less pressure, and the shots are falling easier. That makes the difference”, he said about the newest Boston Celtics player not being able to represent his country in Asia this summer.

Moving on to what he expected from the Latvian national team, instead, Benas Matkevicius didn’t have a lot of doubts. “In terms of expectations, Latvia is always dangerous just because everybody can shoot on that team. Whenever you have that shooting weapon around the perimeter and you have a good guard like Zagars, it creates spaces for him on the inside, and the floor is spread out. If you combine those two, putting Porzingis at the 5, you have even more threat outside”, he added.

“I would lie if I said I saw it coming, but I would never underestimate them just because they are a legitimate threat with NBA and EuroLeague experience, European experience in general, and a good mix of veterans and young guys who are hungry. When you have hungry guards and hungry players, it’s always dangerous. You can also say that Serbia doesn’t have all of its superstars, and they have an underdog mentality too. They came here hungry. Latvia came out to prove to everybody they can play. Same thing with our team, a lot of guys got a chance to play and they want to prove they belong on this stage. And we all proved it”, he finally stated by comparing the Baltics to another national team.

Lithuania will face Slovenia at 14:30 CET to keep on hoping about classifying at the 5th place in the 2023 FIBA World Cup, and they will go up against Mike Tobey, who recently said that having naturalized players on board “helps make teams competitive” and that “can make a big difference, helping small countries compete”.

When asked about this topic becoming more and more popular, Benas Matkevicius said “It’s already usual”, going on to explain why. “If the rules allow it, everybody just wants to win. Every federation makes its own decision in terms of competition, and competitiveness with other teams. Lorenzo Brown had a huge impact on Spain at EuroBasket 2022”, he also said.

However, he doesn’t have doubts about liking this approach or not. “It’s different from team to team, and I feel like to me personally there’s a sense of national pride to show and prove that your program is good enough to compete at the highest stage with your own development; obviously some kids grew up somewhere else, not all grew up in your country, but they still want to play for your national team”, he convincingly said.

“I feel like it’s a stamp of approval if you can win with your guys. It’s a stamp of approval for development, for everybody around. If the rules allow, sure: everybody can do it. I feel like national teams should be national teams and not International teams. That’s my opinion. Every national team should be like it. It’s fun and the quality is different sometimes when you have to create guards that can make something out of nothing, making the game attractive on many levels; I understand the intrigue of it and it’s easier to play sometimes when you create easy advantages. That’s on each federation”, he also added.

This could be solved with the growth of the different domestic leagues, which according to both Gordon Herbert and Sergio Hernandez play a significant part in helping the national teams become better and better. Talking about the Lithuanian league, Benas Matkevicius said it “has grown in terms of marketing and promotion”, and that is “very tactical, the coaches are tactically sound with adjustments from game to game”.

“There are also certain types of basketball culture tactics that help the players to think on a different level, being flexible. It used to be too robotic, with too much speed, there was something missing from the game. Now it looks more complete”, he also said on the LKL.

Moving on to the BBL, he explained in his own terms why they have managed to reach this level. “Germany made a mistake a while ago, something around 20 years ago when they opened up too many spots to foreigners and they had a 10-and-2 rule, with 10 foreigners and 2 Germans. That stagnated the growth, and year by year they reduced them until they arrived at 6+6, which was probably 14 years ago. Since then, it’s been a growth with a lot of players coming out of the BBL going to college, and coming back. I grew up in Germany, I experienced it first hand and it was been fun to watch”, Matkevicius added.

“I don’t think there is always necessarily a connection between the league and the national teams”, he noted. “It helps when the domestic players get to play, they get to have on-court experience and different roles: You develop by playing and not by sitting. There’s also a lot of players in Greece, young talents that signed with big teams and they don’t play. They sit, just to be on a big team, trying to get whether it’s a bigger contract or a bigger team you get the chance to be around. You practice, you do warmups and scrimmages, you do any 5 on 5 in practice but you don’t play games”, he explained by taking Greece as an example.

“You basically lose two or three years of your development, in the most important part of your basketball life. 18, 19, 20, 21: You have to play. Germany has U19 leagues in NBBL and JBBL, in France it works similarly, when they play until 22 I believe. There are steps, and the kids have to play, finding roles. That’s crucial to place players in roles, not only where they can get a good contract and have prestige, but also a role on a smaller team where they can get confidence and experiment. Learning by doing is much more important than learning by watching. That’s the key for any league, any development of young kids”, he then added about the importance of having minutes for young talents.

Having his own podcast, in which he has interviewed the best head coaches around Europe among others, Benas Matkevicius surely knows how to deal with the way basketball should be treated communication-wise.

Touching on Andrea Trinchieri’s participation with DAZN Italy as second-voice commentator for the 2023 FIBA World Cup, the Lithuanian national team head coach expressed his satisfaction with such initiatives.

“That’s what is called color commentating”,  he reacted. “When you have former players, and in the NBA is very common – in Boston, we have Brian Scalabrine, who has seen the level at the highest stage, has won a championship, and then he was coaching himself -, when you move professionals like that behind a microphone to explain in different terms and give color to something that a regular fan just sees black or white, basket goes in and doesn’t”, he said.

“In Lithuania sometimes I got the chance to comment on games, and from me, the proper expressions are not used in the Lithuanian language, so you have to split something. It’s of vital importance to explain to the average viewers what’s going on and why things are happening. For example, when I was working with Ettore Messina at CSKA Moscow, the number one question was “Why?”. That was the number one word. Why are we doing this? Why is the opponent doing this? Why do we cut here, instead of passing and cutting? Why do we set the screen in this way and not that way?”, he added about his time with the current Olimpia Milan’s head coach.

“You always have to get a critical mindset, and the color commentating with the experience behind them changes the view of the average viewer, if he’s interested, he listens and he’s trying to absorb knowledge, understanding that these people know what they’re talking about: they went through all these battles, and they are trying to give the listener and the watcher a better picture of what’s happening, what the players are going through. They see it with your own eyes, you understand what’s happening, why are things going like that on the court. The average viewer doesn’t. If the rainbow has 10 colors, then Andrea will find 3 different shades for each of those colors… that’s why people with his experience are important for that role”, Benas Matkevicius added.


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