Move to Neptunas puts new wind in Masiulis' sail
To help encourage the development of more young local talents, the Basketball Champions League requires its teams to register at least 5 Home Grown Players on the game score sheet (if 11 or more players listed, otherwise 4 if roster has 10 or fewer players). Many of these players are considered top level talents in their respective countries and I will be taking a look at some of them over the course of the season.
KLAIPEDA (Basketball Champions League) - Gytis Masiulis knew leaving his hometown of Kaunas would be a challenge. But moving to Neptunas Klaipeda has given the 20-year-old an invaluable boost in experience which has been the wind that has carried him to new heights.
Masiulis has become a major contributor with Neptunas, averaging 8.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 0.6 steals and 0.6 blocks in the Basketball Champions League as the club fights for a spot in the Playoffs with a 4-6 record in Group D. The 6ft 9in (2.06m) forward also has collected 8.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 0.7 steals and 0.8 blocks in the Lithuanian LKL.
"This season we have our ups and downs, especially in BCL. In the Lithuanian league we are second, so this, so far, is a good result for us," Masiulis said of the team's 14-4 record domestically. "But talking about the BCL ... we have to get as many victories as possible, because we want to advance to the next phase.”
Things actually have been going great for Masiulis in the Baltic seaside city of Klaipeda, where he is playing on loan with Neptunas from Zalgiris Kaunas. The 20 minutes per game in the BCL and in the LKL would have been unthinkable with Zalgiris, the club in which he grew up playing. He did average 1.2 points and 0.8 rebounds last season in the EuroLeague and 5.5 points and 2.9 rebounds domestically. But both Masiulis and Zalgiris knew the young talent needed to get playing time to take the next step.
EuroLeague winner, Olympic medallist as father
It should not be a surprise that Masiulis is an emerging star in Lithuanian basketball. His father, after all, accomplished the stuff most can only dream of. Tomas Masiulis won the EuroLeague in 1999 with Zalgiris and then helped Lithuania to the bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics.
"I am really very proud of him. He worked a lot to get where he was and I am very happy for him," said the younger Masiulis, who was born in 1998.
Tomas Masiulis playing at the 2000 Olympics against the United States.
The elder Masiulis played professional until 2009 when he was 34 years old, including from 2002 to 2008 in Poland with Prokom Trefl Sopot - giving Gytis a good opportunity to watch his father play.
"I remember when he was playing in Sopot how I went to the games and to the practices and always enjoyed watching him play," Gytis Masiulis said. "Of course I don‘t really remember how he won EuroLeague and Olympic bronze as I was a bit too little. However, I remember that he played very well in Poland and became the Polish Leagues Finals MVP (in 2006). So that probably would be my favorite memory.”
Growing up watching Gurovic and Jagodnik
While most Kaunas-born young basketball players grow up following Zalgirs stars, Masiulis is not the typical Zalgiris youngster from Kaunas since he wasn't even in Lithuania for a good chunk of his upbringing. Of the six years father Masiulis was in Poland, Gytis lived there four of them, going to an English private school - something that really helped him learn English.
"I remember when dad used to take me to his practices so I was sitting in the arena watching them practice and when they finished, dad and I played a little one on one. But it was really hard because he never gave up and won most of the time,” he remembered the time when he was about 8 years old.
And instead of following Zalgiris players, Masiulis was watching European veterans such as Milan Gurovic and Goran Jagodnik.
“I remember players like Milan Gurovic and Goran Jagodnik, who both were great players and now are basketball legends in their countries,” Masiulis said.
Back to Kaunas for kitesurfing, Zalgiris
Father Masiulis ended up coming back to Lithuania in 2008 and played with Zalgiris for part of one season before finishing his career in 2009 and moving into coaching. And he joined Zalgiris’ youth system in 2011.
Gytis moved right into the Zalgiris system for his development. Before he really got into his career, though, young Masiulis develop a taste for kitesurfing.
“Before I started play in Zalgiris, I liked kitesurfing. It was like three years ago, so probably I forgot most of it,” he said. “But still I hope that it is like riding a bicycle: once you learn it, you never forget it.”
Once he concentrated solely on basketball, Masiulis was quick to become one of the best in the club’s youth system, twice winning the U18 Adidas Next Generation Tournament qualifier in Kaunas in 2014-15 and 2015-16 and playing at the ANGT Finals at the EuroLeague Final Four both seasons - the second Finals during which he averaged 22.0 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 blocks. And he rose in the ranks of the Lithuania youth national teams as well, playing at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2014 before helping the country grab third place at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2015. A year later at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2016 came what Masiulis called his biggest success thus far - grabbing second place with his own 1998-born generation.
“When we played against Russia in quarterfinal, we were down by 2 points with 3.2 seconds left on the clock and it was quite clear that we will lose that game and then Arnas Velicka made that incredible game-winning buzzer beater and we ended up winning silver medals,” Masiulis recalled. “That whole championship was unbelievable. We were close to not even qualifying from the group phase and finished in 2nd place.”
Two summers of disappointment
Two years of joy with the national team were followed by two summers of disappointment though. At the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2017, Masiulis and Lithuania could not get past Italy in the Quarter-Finals 73-68 and ended up finishing sixth.
“We had a really good chance to win since the Italian team was not on their best game. But we just couldn‘t do it, it seemed like we got scared,” said Masiulis, who averaged 10.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks playing in his first global tournament. “Of course they had a great game but we couldn‘t even score easy baskets. They started with a good defense and we tried to take them with offense and that didn‘t work.”
Gytis Masiulis could not help Lithuania beat Italy at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2017 - the biggest disappointment in his career.
This past summer, Masiulis was ready to help Lithuania get back on the podium at the FIBA U20 European Championship 2018 for just the second time since winning in 2012. The team was perfect in the Group Phase and faced a Spain team that went 1-2, including a loss to Ukraine. Lithuania lost 75-70 in the Round of 16 and ended up winning the rest of the classification games to take ninth place - and head home disappointed.
“That championship was a big disappointment. Both me and the team only thought about medals. But basketball is an interesting matter: one day you win – another you lose,” said Masiulis, who averaged 18.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.4 blocks. “We were very unfortunate to get Spain right after group phase, however we had a chance to win against them just didn‘t use it.”
Summer of transition
Masiulis may have gone through the disappointment in Germany, but the U20 tournament was also a lesson builder.
“Individually I performed quite good in that championship. I was a team leader so this helped to come to the new team with a bigger self-esteem,” he said. “I knew what I can do and that helped me to have a good start of the season.”
Masiulis was about to be on the move. The talented forward had gone as far as he could with Zalgiris - at least at his stage of development. It was clear that a 20-year-old with potential would not get the necessary time needed to move up the ranks. And it was something that he had seen with his 1998-born national team colleagues and even growing up in the Zalgiris system.
Tadas Sedekerskis left Lithuania in 2013 to head to Baskonia while Arnoldas Kulboka joined German club Brose Bamberg in 2015. Martynas Echodas was also a Kaunas native who grew up with Zalgiris and only was able to take the next step when he left the team going to Siauliai. And the same with Laurynas Birutis who left Zalgiris in 2017 to go to his native Siauliai for one season and is now back with Zalgiris.
Arnoldas Kulboka and Gytis Masiulis have had success together outside of Lithuania with the national team. But Masiulis has decided to stay at home at the club level.
“They went to weaker teams which gave them a chance to show what they can do. I didn‘t want to spend another season on the bench waiting for my moment therefore I used the chance to go on loan so that I could get more experience on the court and increase my self-esteem,” Masiulis said.
Chance to play BCL, learn from veterans
Masiulis and his father started looking for a place to take the next step and the duo agreed - along with the blessing of Zalgiris - on Neptunas Klaipeda, a team that competed atop the Lithuanian LKL and would be playing in the Basketball Champions League.
“I knew that I will get playing time. It is a great team, great coach, beautiful city. So those were the main reasons why I came here,” he said. “I knew that the atmosphere in the locker room is also very good and the team is really strong – always amongst the top three teams in the Lithuanian league.”
The BCL meant he would taking on the likes of Brian Qvale, Ivan Buva, Nemanja Djurisic and Ali Traore.
“It gives me a lot of great experience. I played in the EuroLeague last year, but I did not get much playing time. But here I have a chance to play against some of the best players in Europe. It leaves a great impression, when I need to defend players such as Amath M‘Baye and others. It is hard. However, I tried to watch all the games afterwards and learn something new,” he said.
Masiulis also gets the benefit of learning the game from someone with the skillset of Jerai Grant.
“I try to learn how he reads game. He is a big man, but he has a very good court vision and gives great assists. I just try to watch how he plays, how he crosses under the basket. So I have a lot to learn.”
Tomas Delininkaitis and Jerai Grant have been great mentors for Gytis Masiulis.
And then there is Tomas Delininkaitis, who at 36 years old even played against Tomas Masiulis back in 2002 when he was at Neptunas and Masiulis at Zalgiris.
“I can learn a lot from him because he is a very important player on and off the court. He always has a voice in the locker room and gives great advice to young players,” the younger Masiulis said.
Learning game with same-aged players
And Masiulis is not the only youngster at Neptunas, who also have Dziugas Slavinskas, Laurynas Beliaskas and Arunas Mikalauskas - all 21 years or younger. Masiulis played with both Slavinskas and Beliauskas with the national team.
“They were a big help coming to the team as I already knew them. They let me into their group and that made my adaptation to the team much easier. They showed me the city and the best places to eat as it was the first time I came to the new team and new city,” Masiulis said.
The new kid in Klaipeda really is like most youngsters in the game, as Maiulis admits.
“I enjoy listening to music and spending time with my friends, also play video games like NBA and FIFA. My hobbies are like most of the youngsters nowadays, I guess,” Masiulis said.
Who says Gytis Masiulis doesn't smile?
Scanning photo databases, it seems that the young baller has a bit of a serious, stern look on his face most of the time. When asked about it, Masiulis offers up a smile and says: “Probably it is because of bad photographers, who cannot catch the moment when I laugh. I think that I laugh a lot, but maybe others think that not enough. Spending time with my friends and family, definitely makes me laugh more often.”
Taking off on the court
With the base of veterans and young teammates around him, Masiulis has taken off on the court. His production earned him the award for Lithuania’s best U20 player in 2018.
“I am very happy that my hard work is appreciated. Every summer I went to national teams, we won two medals which I am very proud of. Anyway, this is also a push to keep working and to not disappoint people who believe in me,” Masiulis said.
And then came November when head coach Dainius Adomaitis invited Masiulis to the Lithuania senior national team camp for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers fifth window.
Gytis Masiulis admits he was "over the moon" about getting the chance to play with the likes of Renaldas Seibutis on the Lithuania national team.
“I was over the moon when I got the invitation,” he admitted. “It is an incredible experience to play with such players as Jonas Maciulis, Mantas Kalnietis or Renaldas Seibutis. Players that you only have seen on TV before. It‘s unbelievable to be on the same team with them, to have a chance to learn from them: how they act on the court, how they read game. Priceless experience. I am very grateful for this chance.”
And while he did not play against Italy, Masiulis did get on the court for six minutes against Croatia and scored 2 points.
“It‘s every Lithuanian’s dream to play for the national team. Just to get on the court representing your country is a great honor,” he said. “When I was on the bench, all I was thinking about was that if I get on the court I will definitely try to score my first points and I am so happy that I could do that. You can never know if you ever get that chance again so you need to use every second of it.”
Being in Klaipeda means living on the shores of the Baltic Sea - a difference of living about 200 kilometers away from land-locked Kaunas.
“I wouldn‘t say there is a big difference, only 200 km. Maybe a bit more wind and rain but I have already got used to that. I went to seaside couple of times, something that I couldn‘t do living in Kaunas,” he said.
Gytis Masiulis has definitely caught that wind off the Baltic Sea and taken off with it under his sails in the Basketball Champions League.
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