Donatas Motiejunas: “In Lithuania, the money go into local players so a lot of responsibility falls on the shoulders of young guys”

Lithuania is a country that has had huge success in basketball in the last three decades. It is known as „The country of shooters” and the biggest names who wore the green shirts are Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis and Sarunas Jasikevicius. One of the current leaders of the Lithuanian national team is Donatas Motiejunas, who was born in 1990. Donatas started his career at Zalgiris Kaunas, the best club in Lithuania, and in 2012 he signed with Houston Rockets. He spent four years in Texas, playing alongside James Harden and Dwight Howard. In 2017, Motiejunas decided to move to China and he has been playing there since then.

1. You are one of the iconic players of Lithuania. What have so special the basketball in your country that you produce so many young talents every year?

So, I think that, since we got our independence back, basketball became the national sport. It became something for which we became recognized. One of the greatest achievements in our history happened during the Olympic Games in Barcelona (1992) when we beat the Soviet Union, then Russia, for the bronze medal. We were recognized for that and, overall, when you win a lot of kids want to be like that. Everyone wanted to be like Sabonis, Marciulionis, Kurtinaitis so, from that side, a lot of kids started to go to basketball and I was one of them.

2. I see that the teams in Lithuania don’t sign many foreigners like in other countries. They do this to offer more space to their young locals and I appreciate a lot their interest in homegrown players. Investing in local talents should be the strategy for every country?

In Lithuania we don’t have the money to sign all these good players, you know. Lithuania is a small country, so obviously that’s where the space for young talents becomes very good. I think that’s what we got. Only the big clubs have bigger money but all the other clubs can sign one or two Americans. But then all the money go into local players so a lot of responsibility falls on the shoulders of young guys. I wouldn’t call that a strategy. That’s the situation we’re in and we’re really extremely happy cause we’re growing because of it. Of course, countries should look to growing local talents but it’s not easy. In some countries, big money runs the clubs, they want results, they want wins so that’s why you sign the best players. It’s not a lot of space for young guys so to grow they have to play in lower teams. Only when they reach the best form, they can get into a bigger club.

3. Tell me a bit how it was the NBA experience, playing with James Harden and Dwight Howard.

The experience in the NBA was incredible. Overall, my journey there was something that any kid would dream of. Maybe it didn’t end up the way I wanted to but I got a lot out of it. Of course, besides the injury, playing with James and Dwight was amazing, you know, Trevor, a lot of those guys that I played were super good guys. It was just a great opportunity for me to improve as a player. Of course, after the unfortunate injury, I had to move to the second phase of my career. I had to get some playing time, my confidence back and I ended up in China. I have no regrets cause I received everything that I asked for and even more. I got a lot of playing time, a lot of responsibilities on the floor which I love and I had the chance to play with the great players that were around me.

4. I saw many quality players are choosing the Chinese league instead of the NBA. What could be their reasons for this choice? We can start with your case, but speaking also generally about it.

Well, some players go to China to redeem themselves after fallen seasons in the NBA. For me it was the injury, I wasn’t getting any exposure, I wasn’t getting any playing time in the NBA so, instead of signing a minimum deal and staying in a team and being the guy that will maybe play or not play at all, I decided to go to China. I pretty much put everything on a card and see how it’s gonna be, how will my health be. I have no regrets for that cause it ended up being the right decision for me. Of course, in China, the season is 6 months and after that, you have the chance to go back in the NBA if you have good stats. So far, every season I got interest from NBA teams to sign me back for the rest of the season, maybe talk about the next season. But, as I said, right now I have great success here and I am happy here.

5. What are the differences between basketball in the NBA, Europe and China?

The difference between the NBA, Europe, and China is that all of these continents have a different way of playing games. I would say that the Chinese league is between the NBA and Europe. The tempo is high, a lot of games, you have to be in a really good tempo. I work all year round to keep my body in the best shape possible cause I know that when I come back here I have to play a lot of minutes, the big load is gonna be on my back and I will have to do whatever it takes to win the games. Just to compare, NBA, for sure, it was more individual, Europe is all strategy, a lot of physicality and China is in the middle. The tempo is high but also the strategy is very important.

6. How was this basketball season in China? There is hope to continue soon?

For our team, it could have been better. We had some issues with some players so we had some switches. Then, when we got new foreigners in, the season was cut. We’ll see. Everyone is talking right now, but God knows. I’m here in Shanghai, working every day, trying to be ready for whenever they release any information. At this point, they’re talking July 1st, before they were talking about May maybe. We’ll see. As I said, the information is unclear. At this point, we’re waiting for more official news but I’m practising every day and trying to be ready.

Photo: Donatas Motiejunas personal archive

Gratian Cormos & David Istrate