Lithuania, the amber jewel of the BCL
The Basketball Champions League emerged as one of the most prized competitions in European hoops history within a previously unimaginable short period of time, thanks in great part to three important pillars.
Adherence to sporting criteria, fan engagement, and providing opportunities for young talent were key parts of the BCL mission statement since the competition's inception.
Ask any basketball fan around Europe to name a place with dedicated fans, an abundance of talent and clubs that place huge importance in developing homegrown players, and Lithuania will most likely be at the top of anybody's list.
It's only fitting therefore that the first ever Final Four MVP in this competition was a Lithuanian player. Marius Grigonis, who is now a centerpiece of Zalgiris Kaunas under legend Sarunas Jasikevicius, was seeking back in 2016-17 to prove himself on the big stage also at club level, after emerging as a multifaceted wing player with the national team.
Grigonis joined Iberostar Tenerife following the Rio 2016 Games and carved out an important role in the Spanish team's rotation. Tenerife reached the Final Four, topped Reyer Venezia in the Semi-Finals and two days later, four days after Grigonis's 23rd birthday, coach Txus Vidorreta started the Lithuanian winger at the small forward spot in the Final against Bandirma (then named Banvit).
The title game was a cagey affair but Grigonis appeared at times the only player on the court that could connect with the basket with ease, finishing on a game-high 18 points to lead Tenerife to a 63-59 triumph as they were proclaimed champions of the inaugural edition of the BCL.
As Grigonis was building up to his glorious finale to the 2016-17 season, another Lithuanian swingman was taking his first steps in the competition.
Klaipeda native Arnas Butkevicius only took part in two games of the Neptunas campaign that season, but the following year he averaged 13.1 points, 6.9 points and 4 assists per game in the Regular Season, until his performances caught the eye of Lietuvos Rytas and he signed with the Vilnius club.
The big revelation however of the 2017-18 season was undoubtedly Arnoldas Kulboka. The 2.05m (6ft 9in) Lithuanian international joined Capo d'Orlando on loan from Brose Bamberg at the age of 19 and truly made the most of his first chance to taste a European club competition.
Kulboka earned precious playing time on the Italian team and averaged 10.3 points and 5.3 points in the BCL Regular Season, turning heads around the continent -and beyond- and clinching the Best Young Player award.
The Charlotte Hornets took note of his accomplishment and selected the young Lithuanian with the 55th overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft. Kulboka chose to return to Bamberg after the summer, this time of course as a first team player.
After helping the German outfit reach the 2019 Final Four in what was their maiden BCL campaign and to lift the domestic cup title, Kulboka joined Spanish side RETAbet Bilbao Basket and contributed to the excellent campaign of the team that was unanimously deemed the surprise package of the Liga Endesa this year.
In accordance with the unwritten rules of Lithuanian basketball legacy, Kulboka passed on the baton to another exciting young player in Gytis Masiulis.
A modern power forward who moves equally comfortably in the low post or on the perimeter but had only experienced basketball outside the Baltic country thanks to the youth national team up until 2018, Masiulis showcased his skills as a 20-year-old on Neptunas in the 2018-19 BCL season.
Gytis, who is the son of Olympic bronze medalist Tomas Masiulis, averaged 6.9 points and 3.2 rebounds in his breakout season in the European competition and, although he fell short of claiming the award in the BCL, he did win Best Young Player honors in the LKL.
Masiulis has taken another giant step in his development this year, as he evolved into Neptunas's second-leading scorer and rebounder, averaging 11.1 points and 5.2 boards per game in the Regular Season.
The leading Neptunas scorer in the 2019-20 season was of course Deividas Gailius, a battle-tested veteran who accompanies to perfection the youngster Masiulis at the forward spots.
The FIBA EuroBasket 2015 silver medalist joined his hometown club late in the 2018-19 season and only featured in four games, but in 2019-20 he had plenty of opportunities to show his shooting prowess. Gailius finished the BCL Regular Season in the top 12 scorers in the league, averaging 16.6 points on 38 percent three-point shooting.
There are two reasons why Klaipeda is mentioned so often in connection with the BCL. The first is that several players in the competition, apart from Gailius and Buktevicius, were born in the beautiful Baltic seaport city.
The other, of course, is Neptunas. The Klaipeda club one of the select few around Europe that is by now closely associated with the competition, as they have taken part in every edition of the BCL since it first tipped off in 2016.
Neptunas had a strong showing in the inaugural Regular Season, finishing tied with ASVEL and Oldenburg for first place in their group on a 10-4 record, but suffered a narrow 6-point aggregate loss to Ludwigsburg in the Round of 16.
The 2017-18 season played out in very similar fashion, as Neptunas advanced to the Play-Offs (on a 7-7 record) but succumbed to a 5-point aggregate loss to Strasbourg.
The following season, the Klaipeda team found themselves in the same Regular Season group with eventual champions Virtus Bologna but still managed to finish in third place, on an 8-6 record. The Lithuanian side however crossed paths with a very powerful Hapoel Jerusalem side and were eliminated for the third straight year in the Round of 16.
The 2019-20 season was the first time Neptunas failed to make the trip to the Play-Offs, as they seemed to be on track for a top-four finish in Group D but lost ground on the final stretch and finished in fifth spot in the standings.
Neptunas was not the only Lithuanian representative in the inaugural BCL season as Juventus Utena, fresh off their first ever international campaign, in the FIBA Europe Cup, had a solid 8-6 showing in their Regular Season group.
The Utena club earned a ticket to the Play-Offs Qualifiers but fell to AEK and didn't make it to the Round of 16. Juventus returned to the BCL in 2017-18, but this time around they didn't advance past the Regular Season.
Lietkabelis took over from Juventus as the second Lithuanian club in 2018-19 but was drawn in the same group as AEK, Hapoel Jerusalem and eventual Final Four participants Brose Bamberg and Telenet Giants Antwerp and finished in fifth place.
The Panevezys side however built on that experience, returned for the 2019-20 season and put together a chain of memorable hard-fought victories late in Group A to clinch a spot in the Play-Offs.
Lietkabelis fell to Casademont Zaragoza in the Round of 16 but they upheld what has by now become a BCL tradition: the Play-Offs have always featured at least one Lithuanian team in every year of the competition.