On January 9, 2018, about 1.6 million people on Facebook watched 16-year-old LaMelo Ball and 19-year-old LiAngelo Ball — the younger brothers of then-Laker Lonzo Ball — play in the first game of an exhibition tournament in the small town of Prienai, Lithuania.
The Big Baller Challenge, as the tournament was called, was sponsored by Big Baller Brand, an apparel company owned by the Balls’ intemperate father, LaVar, and was more or less conceived as a showcase for the two teenagers, who, at their father’s publicity-loving behest, were experimenting with alternate routes to the NBA that did not include college.
And while LiAngelo and LaMelo played pretty well in that first game, combining for 30 points and 10 assists, the most impressive teenager on the floor turned out to be from the opposing team: Rokas Jokubaitis.
Then just 17-years-old, Jokubaitis scored 31 points on 13-24 shooting for Zalgiris-2, the reserve squad of storied Lithuanian club Zalgiris, and was deemed the game’s “top NBA prospect” by ESPN’s Mike Schmitz, who was in attendance.
Three and a half years later, with LaMelo recently being named NBA Rookie of the Year and LiAngelo still trying to break into the league, The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie predicts the L.A. Clippers will select Jokubaitis with the 25th pick in the draft.
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Creativity, Not Athleticism, Defines Jokubaitis’s Game
Though Jokubaitis is physically strong, Vecenie’s report (and practically every other scouting report) indicates that Jokubaitis does not possess the usual athleticism found in a 6-foot-4 NBA guard. But, much like other European players who have succeeded in the league, he has an “exceptional feel for the game” and his creativity and poise, along with his sturdy frame, allows him to come off screens and find daylight and finish in the lane.
In Vecenie’s in-depth draft guide that accompanied his smaller article, he writes:
As a scorer, [Jokubaitis] can snake the screen and get all the way to the basket while shielding himself from defenders. Made a ridiculous 61.4 percent at the rim this season in halfcourt settings, an awesome number for a young guard in Europe. Very strong at the rim and plays through contact with great balance. Can stop and pop on a dime from the free-throw line, where he’s very comfortable having hit 41 percent of those shots as a 20- year-old. Then, of course, also can flatten out and just stop and pop if the big goes under.
Vecenie also highlights Jokubaitis’s passing ability and sure-handedness with the ball, calling him an “extremely creative playmaker” who “sees things that others just don’t.” In 74 games for Zalgiris’s first team last season, Jokubaitis averaged 3.4 assists against 1.4 turnovers.
As for his shooting effectiveness off the catch, Vecenie describes Jokubaitis as “reliable from distance” and that he “doesn’t have to be totally set to make them.” But Vecenie does note that it does take him a bit longer than most guards to get off a shot. Jokubaitis averaged 7.5 points last season on 46.6% from the field and 35% from 3-point territory.
In watching Jokubaitis’s highlights, NBA guard Goran Dragic comes to mind — both players employing a left-hand dominant herky-jerky style of ballhandling that mitigates their lack of explosiveness by keeping scrambling defenders off-balance long enough to pick a point of attack or find an open cutter. While that mode of operation can be effective in half-court sets with plenty of time on the shot clock, Vecenie points out that Jokubaitis does not have the same level of shiftiness as Dragic and therefore could have trouble creating his own shot under the gun.
“Absolutely not a player who I’d feel comfortable with just giving the ball to at the end of a shot clock and assuming he can make something happen out of isolation,” writes Vecenie. “Needs that ball screen to get separation. Has all the reads down, but in the NBA I’m not sure I trust Jokubaitis to blow by bigs in isolation yet.”
Vecenie has similar concerns when it comes to Jokubaitis’s defense, speculating that he may not have the quickness to “defend in space” against the league’s better guards, and could find it difficult to employ the same level of physicality that he does in Europe.
“He does a decent job in Europe because he can use his strength and body a little bit more than he’ll be able to in the NBA,” writes Vecenie.“But he’s not overly light on his feet. Takes him an extra split second to load up and drop his hips to get his momentum going again if a player changes direction. This affects his closeouts, too.”
Likely a Draft-&-Stash
This is not the first time Jokubaitis has declared for the NBA draft. He was an early entrant last offseason, pegged to go in the middle-to-late second round, but contracted the coronavirus at the end of October and withdrew from consideration 10 days before the November draft.
Had he stayed in, Jukobaitis would’ve likely been a stash pick, free to play professionally elsewhere but with his NBA rights still controlled by whoever drafted him.
And though Jokubaitis had a breakout year with Zalgiris this season — finishing second to presumed first-round pick Usman Garuba for EuroLeague Rising Star, and being named the EuroLeague Players Association Best Young Player and the Lithuanian League’s Rising Star — there’s a very good chance he will still be a team’s stash pick this time around. Particularly if he’s drafted by the Clippers, who already have more than enough contract situations than they would like.
Stashed players can compete in the NBA summer league, but they don’t have a contract and therefore do not impact a team’s payroll.
Jokubaitis has his bases covered though, signing a guaranteed four-year deal with European powerhouse FC Barcelona just days ago. Reportedly set to make €230,000 in his first year with Barcelona, Jokubaitis can still bolt for the NBA if he’s drafted — and then signed — but otherwise, if he’s only drafted, he will join Barcelona and wait for the NBA to come calling. If that happens within the next four years, it will take a $750,000 buyout to get him released from Barcelona.
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