A young, tall and extremely talented NBA draftee from Lithuania. No, we aren’t referring to Jonas Valanciunas. This time it is Donatas Motiejunas, who is called “D-Mo” by Kevin McHale and Rockets’ fans.
After trying to make a huge leap forward during the early part of his career, the now 20-year-old, 7-foot big man is doing everything step-by-step. Motiejunas was selected 20th overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2011 NBA Draft and traded to Rockets in a deal agreed upon on draft night. But as the NBA Draft process ended, he began to focus his mind on Lithuanian national team candidates’ camp.
Despite a decent performance in a friendly game against the Czech Republic where Motiejunas scored 11 points, head coach Kestutis Kemzura cut the young big man for the second consecutive year. Motiejunas, who played for Benetton Treviso in Italy last season, lacked power and rebounding skills to make it to the final roster, but now no one doubts -- Motiejunas and Valanciunas is the future of the basketball country, Lithuania.
RealGM sat down with Motiejunas for a long talk about the NBA Draft, the Houston Rockets, Luis Scola, Lithuanian national teams, Valanciunas, his career and much more.
RealGM: First of all, tell us about your experience in this year’s Lithuanian national team candidates camp. Is there anything different from the previous year?
Motiejunas: I had an angina surgery last season and it really affected my preparation for the training camp. I wasn’t able to demonstrate my real game and play at full strength. It really affected my performance last year and I just wasn’t ready. This year it’s a different story; I feel different.
RealGM: Is it right to say that with your experience from last year and after what you went through this year, you feel more comfortable in this environment?
Motiejunas: Of course. My first year in the Lithuanian national team camp was stressful, you don’t know what to expect, how people will talk to you. When you come for the second time, you already know some people and it’s easier to communicate with your teammates.
RealGM: There are a lot of veteran big men in this year’s camp. Do you think you can learn something from them or did you come here directly to demonstrate that you are better than them?
Motiejunas: For sure, I came to show my power, but at the same time you always can learn something from older players. That’s what I’m trying to do.
RealGM: Did you receive any questions from your teammates on the national team about the NBA Draft? Did they ask you to share your impressions about that event?
Motiejunas: No, they don’t ask things like that. They are all professionals; therefore it’s not really important.
RealGM: Taking you back to 2009, how difficult for you was to leave Kaunas when you were only 19 and go play in Italy for Benetton Treviso?
Motiejunas: I had just turned 19 and it was a new experience for me. You see new faces; new environment and you have to do everything on your own. You become mature when you face things like that.
RealGM: Did you have a personal trainer in Italy or did you work all the time with the whole team?
Motiejunas: It was different. After the end of the season I worked with a personal trainer. This offseason I worked with a great personal trainer, Marcelo Nicola. He really sees how I should play, what I do wrong and I think it’s really good.
RealGM: You mentioned that you were working during the offseason. Did you work on anything specific?
Motiejunas: Like I said, usually there is a trainer who follows me. I really have good relations with him, he watch a lot of my games because he lives in Italy, he sees what I should improve. All those small details, which usually cost a lot. I need to work on them and that’s what I do.
RealGM: You were one of only a few players who decided to not be at the Prudential Center on draft night but to watch the whole ceremony on TV. Why did you decide to do that?
Motiejunas: I decided that it’s better this way. The unknowing when you’ll get drafted… I just didn’t want to fret about that. I spent that time with my agent. We watched it on TV and allowed me to be less nervous.
RealGM: At the NBA draft night, did you imagine yourself with the Timberwolves’ jersey or did everything go so quickly that you didn’t have enough time because you were already on other team?
Motiejunas: When I got drafted [by Timberwolves], they called me and told me that the trade was made before the selection, but it wasn’t official. Before the draft I didn’t know that the agreement was already made.
RealGM: Afterwards you said that one of the reasons you are happy to join Rockets is because legendary Lithuanian player Arturas Karnisovas works there. Did you have a chance to talk with him?
Motiejunas: Yes, we talked for a while and he’s a really nice person. It was a really pleasant talk. I can’t say anything bad about him, only good.
RealGM: Was the NBA league always like a goal for you? Did you see yourself playing there when you were young?
Motiejunas: I have been concentrated on the European game all my life. I played European basketball for my whole life. When my abilities showed up, I think NBA is the direction I should follow because I know that the the fastest way to develop my individual skills is playing there.
RealGM: All young basketball players have their basketball idols. Could you tell us if your basketball idols were from NBA or Europe?
Motiejunas: It has always been players from Europe; for example, Luis Scola has been my idol all my life, I followed him all the time. When he moved to the NBA, it was difficult to watch his game, but I still was doing that.
RealGM: Knowing that you will play on the same team with your basketball idol, it probably added more joy when you heard Rockets name.
Motiejunas: For sure, I was really happy when I went there. I had a chance to talk with him a little bit during the dinner. He’s a really nice person.
RealGM: Did you talk with Benneton Treviso about the upcoming season?
Motiejunas: I don’t know anything about that yet. Nothing has been decided on this question.
RealGM: You played your first game in Zalgiris Kaunas team when you were only 17. Do you think that you were ready to play for a Euroleague team at that time?
Motiejunas: I think I was ready for Lithuanian basketball league (LKL) and Baltic basketball league (BBL), but not for a higher level. I think it was a mistake to go there. It has always been in my life that if I try to jump few steps further, I always fall down. It costed me a lot, I got injured and I had to go back to my old team. And then I started to try to reach my career goals step by step.
RealGM: It seemed that you felt really comfortable in Houston, especially in the post-draft press comference. Are you really so confident in yourself before the upcoming seasons in Houston?
Motiejunas: I just play the game I love -- basketball. I feel relaxed when I do that. Why should I feel uncomfortable? I never was like that. I was myself and that’s it.
RealGM: Did you have a chance to talk with Rockets coaching staff?
Motiejunas: Yes, after I have been practining with them for a week. Impressions? It was really nice. (Kevin McHale) is a big man, which means he understands my game. Maybe he sees a little bit himself in me, he was a similar type of player like me; he had a big arsenal of moves. I think it will really nice to work with him in the future.
RealGM: I know you didn’t spend much time there, but do you feel that training in Europe and U.S. is different?
Motiejunas: Of course I feel that the style of basketball is different. Way more physical play and speed, but I don’t see any problems in that. All practices I had, they didn’t surprise me. Before I went there, I had expected that I would see and learn something new. However, it didn’t happen, everything I saw in the U.S. I have already did with my coaches in Italy.
RealGM: You have been playing in Italy together with one of the most talented Italian players Alessandro Gentile. What is your opinion of him?
Motiejunas: We are really good friends and we are in good relations. We live close to each other. We hang-out together a lot. We are trying to support each other.
RealGM: Looking to your future, what do you think you need to improve the most in your game?
Motiejunas: There are a lot of things. Every player has something to improve. I want to improve all sides of my game. I want to do everything perfect; play the best basketball I’ll be able to play.
RealGM: You gained some muscle mass over the last few years. Is it just you getting matured or you are specificaly working on this thing?
Motiejunas: I was always working in the weight room. Some players get matured earlier, some later. What can do if Valanciunas, who is 18 or 19-year-old, looks like me at 21-years-old… I have been working in the weight room hard and long hours all the time. You can’t fight with nature.
RealGM: You and Jonas Valanciunas are in the same shoes at the moment -- you are both young and talented, got drafted this year, trying to make it to the national team’s final roster. I also saw you both doing some exercises together in the national team training camp. Do you feel any special connection with Valanciunas?
Motiejunas: I don’t see any problems with working with Jonas and I think it’s the same for him. We push and encourage each other. I know that he’s trying to become the best player and he knows the same about me. We are in the same shoes. He probably understands that we both will play in the national team in the near future as well.