With 26 seconds to play in a rematch of last season’s EuroLeague championship game between Barcelona and Anadolu Efes and the score 80 – 77, Blaugrana guard Rokas Jokubaitis took matters into his own hands.
Jokubaitis got the ball from Kyle Kuric while there were 16 seconds remaining on the shot clock. The Lithuanian guard quickly studied his opponents’ defense and when he saw the opportunity the switches gave him, he began his drive to the basket. He then drew the contact from reigning EuroLeague MVP Vasilije Micic while scoring a quite tough basket in a sequence that put his team up by six.
Game over with a career-high 16 points for Jokubaitis who turned 21 just in November. The finale of this match carried a pretty similar script to what happened in the first-leg game of Efes and Barca in Istanbul when Jokubaitis pulled off a crucial 3-point play in the last minute of overtime to help his team get the road win.
“It’s incredible,” Jokubaitis told Eurohoops. “Sometimes to lead the team to victories, to play in crunch time. To make decisions in overtime. It has a huge impact on my experience for sure.” The interview took place in December when the playmaker was establishing himself as an important part of Barca’s rotation.
Jokubaitis found himself receiving a more substantial role and increased minutes as one of the youngest members of a stacked squad when leading floor general Nick Calathes got injured in late November. Over the last 10 EuroLeague games, he’s registered 10.8 points and 4.3 assists in 22:54 minutes while Barcelona has gone 8-2.
“Things happened very fast,” Jokubaitis said. “A few players go injured. This situations changed thing fast. It was like this (snaps fingers) that I got more playing time. Me and Nicolas Laprovittola are the only two point guards on the team. It’s not very easy. But when it comes to the experience I’m getting… it’s incredible. Players will come back from injuries but I showed coaches that I can play.”
While Jokubaitis’ star in Europe has been shining brighter and brighter (and right now it will be a shocker if he doesn’t win EuroLeague’s actual Rising Star award), the New York Knicks have been paying attention. And he has been watching them back as well.
“Sometimes my Summer League coaches text me to see how I’m doing,” Jokubaitis said. “They reach out to my agent and my agents in the USA. I think few staff members from the Knicks are coming in February [to watch me]. I’ll be in better touch with them.”
“[I’m watching their games] whenever I have a chance. The schedule doesn’t allow it all the time. I follow them and I know what’s happening. I keep in contact with a few players, rookies that I’ve played with in Summer League. I know what’s happening on the team.”
Before Jokubaitis got drafted with the 34th overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, scouting reports pointed out aspects of his physicality, defense and limited right hand use among his weaknesses.
He’s in agreement, more or less. “Every time someone asks what I have to improve, is making decisions with the right hand, 3-point shooting and defense. If we are talking about NBA – and EuroLeague of course – it’s physicality, speed, shooting. When I think about it, these scouts are right.”
“I like to read these things – what’s more negative, not the positive” Jokubaitis admitted.
The 2021-22 season didn’t begin well for the Barcelona organization since the highly decorated soccer team was eliminated in the Champions League Group stage for the first time in 20 years. Does Jokubaitis feel that he and the rest of the basketball department have an extra mission to sort of redeem the club?
“It was a little bit sad to see that not everything’s going right for the [soccer] team,” Jokubaitis said. “We need to step it up on the basketball side. We are the same club. We are FC Barcelona, not BC Barcelona.”
Photo: EuroLeague Basketball