Donatas Motiejunas, Benetton Bwin

Feb 28, 2011 by David Hein, Euroleague.net Print
Donatas Motiejunas, Benetton Bwin
Donatas Motiejunas - Benetton Bwin (Photo: benettonbasket.it)One of the game's great young stars is Benetton Bwin Basket big man Donatas Motiejunas, who in his second season in Italy continues to grow – both physically and mentally – and develop into a dominant force. Motiejunas chose to come to Treviso for two reasons – to take his game to a new level and to win titles. The first goal is an ongoing project and he continues to display his improvement from game to game. As for the second goal, there is already a target date. Benetton’s and Motiejunas's home floor, the Palaverde in Treviso, will host the Eurocup Finals on April 16-17 and there is no better time for this rising star to show the basketball world that he has arrived. And Motiejunas knows what a special opportunity it can be. "I think every team wants to play the Finals at home," the 20-year-old Motiejunas told Eurocupbasketball.net. "The Finals is the best. The gym is probably gonna be full and the support is going to be wild and crazy. And it will be tougher for the opposing teams. So it's a big advantage. But we'll see how it will be. First of all we have to get there."

To get there Motiejunas and co. first face Cajasol Sevilla on Tuesday in a showdown for first place in Last 16. Then Benetton moves on to the Eurocup Quarterfinals, where it will face a yet-to-be-determined opponent in a two-game total-points series to earn the right to play in the Eurocup Finals. The road to the Eurocup Finals is now clear, with both player and team knowing what it will take to get there. That wasn’t always the case for Motiejunas.

A native of Kaunas, Lithuania, Motiejunas was hailed as future star already as a teenager and first wore his country’s colors at the 2006 European Under-16 Championships. His reputation grew from year to year to year and by 2008 he was a hot topic after progressing from the Zalgiris-Sabonio mokykla Kaunas and BC Zalgiris Kaunas juniors to the Zalgiris main team, even making his Euroleague debut just six weeks after his 17th birthday. Along the way Motiejunas turned heads at the 2008 Euroleague Nike International Junior Tournament in Madrid, where he was named to the All-Tournament team and then that summer when he won silver medals with the Lithuanian U-18 and U-20 at their respective European championships. Motiejunas was the MVP of the U-18 Euros in Greece after finishing in the top five in scoring (18.2 ppg.), rebounding (10.2 rpg.) and blocked shots (1.8 bpg.). Though he was fit to be a reserve for Zalgiris’s main team, it was better for Motiejunas to get more playing time, so he went to Aisciai Kaunas on loan, averaged 19.9 points per game and was chosen to play in the 2009 Lithuanian All Star Game.

Donatas Motiejunas - Benetton Bwin (Photo: benettonbasket.it)By the next summer, the Motiejunas family faced a difficult decision: For Donatas to either remain home and continue to develop through the Zalgiris system, or to test himself abroad. There were no shortage of offers for Motiejunas’s services and in the end they chose to make Treviso the next stop in his career. “I decided with my parents. It was a really hard decision,” Motiejunas said of his move to Treviso and the storied Benetton program. “Benetton promised me everything and gave me everything. Every manager supported me like my father. So that makes all the other things easier. The main factor was that they gave me what I could not get from other teams in Europe – that much support from all the management in Benetton, like I get now.”

A major factor for Motiejunas – and his family for that matter – going into the 2009-10 season was playing time. “For my father it was the most important thing – and for me also – that I play. It doesn’t matter how much they promise or what’s in the contract. It matters to my parents and me that I play. That was the main factor,” said Motiejunas. “If I play a bad game, then I only play three minutes. It’s my problem. But if I play good, my parents don’t want me to sit on the bench.”

Learning a new culture, a new language and a new playing style while also dealing with the pressure of being a highly-regarded prospect, Motiejunas hit the ground running in the Italian League, scoring in double digits in six of his first nine games on his way to averaging 9.2 points and 4.7 rebounds in 20.3 minutes as a rookie for veteran coach Jasmin Repesa. But Motiejunas admitted he really struggled his first season, which he felt he just needed to get through. “The first year was a little bit difficult. I didn’t really have an important place in the team. But I was still working really hard. Some games I didn’t really feel like playing. So it was a really tough year. But the first year you just have to give your best and push yourself and not give up,” said Motiejunas. After putting in his tough first year, Motiejunas underwent Achilles surgery at the end of the 2009-10 season and admitted his recovery was “really bad”. But he was very happy about returning to Italy. “This year when I came back to Treviso, I felt like I was coming back home.”

Donatas Motiejunas - Benetton Basket BwinA slow start by Motiejunas this season was followed by the big man truly living up to his star status with a nine-game stretch in Italy in which he averaged 15.8 points and 4.6 rebounds. He also averaged 14.2 points and 5.8 rebounds in the Eurocup Regular Season. Although Benetton has struggled in the Italian League with just a 9-11 record for 11th place, Repesa’s men are just two wins from fourth place, meaning everything is possible for the team. “I think the level in the Eurocup is much higher than the Italian league. Maybe it’s like the coach said: ‘We players are having mental problems [in the Italian League],’” said Motiejunas. “We play [in the Eurocup] much better than back home. It’s not usual that in our league we lose on the road games that are supposed to be ours. We just kind of give up. [At Alba Berlin in the Eurocup] we really showed our character and really had good defense and we won.”

Despite the struggles In Italy, Motiejunas and Benetton have been among the best in the Eurocup, losing just one game all season so far, which gives the player, team and their fans great hopes of competing for the Eurocup title when Treviso hosts the Eurocup Finals in April. In the meantime, he continues to work hard to make himself, bigger, stronger and better. He has already added seven kilo of muscle, mainly in his upper body featuring sculpted arms. And just as his game develops, so has his confidence. Motiejunas shies away from comparisons with other players of similar build, whether it be Lithuanian legends or even former Benetton player Andrea Bargnani. “Everybody is talking how I will be like this player or this player or how I will turn out. I’m going to be different from all of them,” he said. “But time will show. I have not reached anything yet.”

For now that is true, but if Motiejunas has his way, April 17th will change everything.