While the Big Baller Brand Lithuanian Tour has already had its fair share of reality TV moments, the news that Vytautas will now play Zalgiris’ second team on Jan. 9 — rather than Minsk (0-6 in the Baltic League) — is a short-term win for most parties involved.
Zalgiris 2 operates as the youth development team for the prestigious Lithuanian power. It’s comprised of players ranging from 16 to 21 years old and includes some of the top youth prospects in the basketball-crazed country. Zalgiris 2 is expected to play only its under-18 prospects against the Ball brothers and Vytautas on Tuesday. While the long-term future of LaMelo and LiAngelo Ball remains uncertain, this at least allows them to match up with the top Lithuanian players in or around their age group.
For 16-year-old LaMelo Ball, the better long-term prospect of the two, competing against Lithuania’s elite under-18 talent is an excellent barometer. Rather than going toe-to-toe with middling Baltic League local players, the Ball brothers will square off with prospects who are at a similar stage of development. Evaluating youth players among their peers is often the best way to gauge where they stand, and finding more ways to schedule games with Zalgiris 2 and other top under-18 club teams would make their overseas experience more beneficial.
For international scouts and talent evaluators — some of whom still view this as a gimmick and were resistant to take a break from their hectic schedules to scout both LaMelo and LiAngelo at the Baltic League level before this news — there is a little more incentive to either attend the game or break down the film given the increase in future draftable young talent.
Having scouted a handful of Zalgiris 2’s top prospects live at the Adidas Next Generation Tournament in Kaunas, Adidas Eurocamp in Treviso, Italy, multiple European championships and even in their practice facility, we have a strong grasp on the type of talent both LaMelo and LiAngelo will face in their Lithuania debut. Here are three basketball-related developments to watch during Tuesday’s highly-anticipated Big Baller Brand Challenge opener in Lithuania.
1. LaMelo Ball vs Rokas Jokubaitis
Two of the game’s top prospects, LaMelo Ball and 17-year-old, 6-foot-4 lefty point guard Rokas Jokubaitis, will likely go head-to-head for stretches on Tuesday. The 2000-born Jokubaitis is considered the top young point guard in all of Lithuania and would project as a high major player if he were developing in the United States. He’s impressed both on the club and national team level and is held in high regard by Sarunas Jasikevicius (a Lithuanian legend, former NBA player and the Zalgiris head coach).
Jokubaitis first broke out as a 15-year-old at the FIBA under-16 European Championships in Radom, Poland, posting a 32.3 player efficiency rating (PER) in seven games. This past summer Jokubaitis shined at the under-19 World Championships, averaging more than 19 points and 10 assists (second in the entire tournament) per-40 minutes as a 16-year-old on a 5-2 Lithuania team. Jokubaitis was also selected to participate in the NBA’s 2017 Basketball Without Borders Europe camp held in Israel and stood out as one of the top point guards in attendance.
He’s an extremely creative ball handler and facilitator with an advanced pick-and-roll game and soft touch on floaters and pull-up jumpers. Already a known commodity among international scouts, Jokubaitis has a good opportunity to show his talent. Jokubaitis will test the 6-foot-5 LaMelo defensively, which is an area where scouts will want to see Ball play with more intensity moving forward. Jokubaitis isn’t the most heralded defender in his own right, so LaMelo, a talented scoring guard with shot creation potential, will certainly have his opportunities to get going on the offensive end. Although it’s only one game that likely has more of an emphasis on entertainment than winning or losing, this is a much better evaluation situation than the Baltic League, since we’re able to see Ball against one of the more highly-touted European point guards in his age group.
Zalgiris 2’s usual starting point guard, 18-year-old Ignas Sargiunas, isn’t expected to play in the game as he’s 1999-born, and the team is aiming to stick with its under-18 group. However, Sargiunas, a 6-4 versatile combo guard, is an accomplished European player in his own right.
2. LiAngelo Ball vs Martynas Arlauskas
LiAngelo Ball may match up with one of Lithuania’s best wing prospects in 6-foot-8 Martynas Arlauskas. The 17-year-old Arlauskas is a tough-minded, highly disciplined wing who defends his position, moves the ball on offense and knocks down standstill 3s. While he’s not having a great season in the second division thus far, Arlauskas has impressed on the national scene and has already seen a few late-game, blowout minutes at the EuroLeague level. Arlauskas and LiAngelo Ball couldn’t have more opposite styles of play.
Not the most prolific scorer, Arlauskas is known for playing within the flow of the offense — operating as a ball-mover, cutter, straight-line driver and occasional shooter. On the other hand, LiAngelo is seen as a more aggressive scorer and streaky shooter with a strong frame. Although LiAngelo isn’t an NBA prospect at the moment, this is a good chance for Arlauskas to showcase his defensive acumen to a more widespread audience.
We’ll be watching to see if Zalgiris 2 uses this as an opportunity to give some minutes to 6-foot-8, 16-year-old forward Modestas Kancleris. The 2001-born Kancleris is considered arguably the top long-term prospect in Lithuania. He made his debut to most NBA scouts at the 2017 Adidas Eurocamp with the Next Generation team, and he was chosen as one of a handful of players to compete against the top American players at the Adidas Nations Training Camp in Los Angeles last summer. Kancleris is a rangy, fluid athlete with a smooth shooting stroke, a strong handle for his size and a versatile offensive game. He’s averaging 4.2 minutes per game in nine contests in the Lithuanian second division at age 16.
Like Sargiunas, 18-year-old 6-foot-8 wing Lukas Uleckas also isn’t expected to play in the game. He’s having a so-so year with Zalgiris 2 but is considered one of Lithuania’s better wing prospects thanks to his size, shooting potential and sound feel for the game.
3. Adaptability and Communication
Although Vytautas is known to play a more free-flowing, up-tempo style than most teams in Lithuania, it bears watching how LaMelo and LiAngelo will fit into a more realistic, pro-style offense. At Chino Hills and on the AAU circuit, the Ball brothers had the ultimate green light and would regularly hoist pull-ups from half-court and cherry-pick on the other end of the floor. While this is more or less viewed as an exhibition game, the Balls are expected to play heavy minutes, and the level of competitiveness may leave much to be desired. How adaptable will the Ball brothers be to what could be a new style of play?
LaMelo is most intriguing long-term if he’s able to operate as a lead guard, and this is a good opportunity to show that he can facilitate for others and impact the game in more ways than just scoring. If the Ball brothers do indeed play high-volume hoops, how will the head coach, their teammates and an expectedly rabid fan base react? If shots aren’t falling, how will they respond to adversity? Will they show more defensive grit than they have in the past? How long will Vytautas’ head coach, who speaks no English, roll with the Ball brothers if they do indeed have their ups and downs?
It will also be interesting to see how they interact with their Lithuanian teammates, including Vytautas’ newest addition, Hatian center Kervin Bristol. Earning locker-room respect is certainly a part of their long-term evaluation. It’s a big reason why Lonzo Ball is well-liked among teammates and opposing NBA players despite the hype. While LaMelo is still young and early in his development, showing he can be adaptable in adverse situations and buying into a different style of play could be positive developments to come out of this experience.
One other storyline worth keeping an eye on is whether or not LaMelo can find a way into the Adidas Next Generation Tournament that will take place in Kaunas on Jan. 19-21. This tournament is attended by every NBA team in some capacity and would be a great setting for Ball to compete against some of the top under-18 talents in all of Europe. While Zalgiris is said to have expressed interest in LaMelo Ball on a loan for the tournament, it remains to be seen if Vytautas would be willing to part with the 16-year-old guard for the event.