July 1, 2005
NBA free agency
Pacers looking to Europe for help
Bird would like to sign Lithuanian point guard, but other teams also are interested.
By Mark Montieth
His name is unrecognizable in many American basketball circles, not to mention unpronounceable.
Fans soon will become much better acquainted with Sarunas Jasikevicius, however, if he fulfills his dream of signing an NBA contract.
Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird, who no doubt sees much of himself in the 6-4, 29-year-old point guard, is among the league executives who have pursued Jasikevicius throughout Europe and wouldn't mind making him a household name in Indianapolis.
"I think he's the best player in Europe," Bird said. "He's one of the best competitors I've ever seen."
Bird has interest in several players as the NBA's free agency negotiation period opens today, and Jasikevicius (pronounced yes-uh-KA-vi-shus) is reported to have interest from about a half-dozen teams. Still, the two seem to be made for one another given their respective playing reputations.
Jasikevicius, a native of Lithuania, attended high school in Pennsylvania and played at the University of Maryland from 1994-98. He averaged 12.4 points as a senior and went undrafted.
He since has become a superstar in Europe. What happened in between?
He played out of position at Maryland. A natural point guard and leader, he was relegated to the wing. He has also improved greatly, negating his relative lack of athleticism with exceptional shooting and passing skills, confidence and passion.
After playing a season in Lithuania and another in Slovenia, he played three seasons in Barcelona. After helping Barcelona to the Euroleague championship in 2003, he led the Lithuanian national team to the European championship that summer.
Jasikevicius has played the past two seasons for the Maccabi team in Tel Aviv, Israel, leading it to two more Euroleague titles. He was named MVP of the tournament this year.
He averaged 15.7 points over 24 Euroleague games, shooting 48 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 94 percent from the foul line. He hit better than 50 percent of his 3-point shots in his past two years of regular-season play.
He has also excelled against U.S. teams in the Olympics. He scored 27 points for Lithuania in a near-upset in the 2000 Olympics and had 28 in a victory over the U.S. team last summer in Greece.
Pacers international scout Misho Ostarcevic said Jasikevicius has been ready to play in the NBA for two years.
"He's strong mentally and physically," Ostarcevic said. "He's not afraid to take the last shot. He runs the team. He's a very good passer and shooter. A decent defender. A team player and leader."
Jasikevicius' popularity is such that one fan has launched a Web site, www.jasikevicius.com, in his honor. After the final game of his previous season a video tribute was shown in which teammates and other local officials implored him to stay. He was presented a petition with 17,000 signatures.
Regardless, he is definite in his desire to play in the NBA next season.
"My general direction this summer is the NBA, and if I'll get an offer from a strong team, with a shot at the NBA title and the possibility for me to play meaningful minutes, I'll sign there," he told a Lithuanian newspaper earlier this week. "I know that nobody will guarantee me any playing time, but if I'll be good and prove myself, I'll play."
Portland, Utah, Dallas, Boston and Cleveland also are said to be in pursuit, but not all of them fit Jasikevicius' desire to play on a contender. The Pacers have only a portion of their mid-level exception to offer, which tempers Bird's confidence in landing him.
"There's some other teams after him, too," Bird said. "We don't have resources to make big offers to guys. Right now we're waiting to see what happens."
Another free agent option is former Duke and Chicago Bulls point guard Jay Williams. The second pick in the 2002 draft, Williams was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident after his rookie season and has not played since.
He has begun serious workouts again and the Bulls, who have restocked with young point guards, are reportedly planning to relinquish his rights. Williams' business manager, Kevin Bradbury, said the Pacers are among the teams who have shown interest. Bird, however, said he is more focused on players who can lend immediate help.
"If you're going to get somebody, you better get somebody you know can get some time right away," Bird said.
Somebody like Jasikevicius, for example.