After a somewhat average season in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague that saw long-time local idol Sarunas Jasikevicius step in as head coach late in the campaign, Zalgiris Kaunas regrouped during the summer to have another go at the competition with renewed spirits. Both new and familiar faces joined the team for 2016-17. The backcourt enjoyed an important injection with All-EuroCup selection Kevin Pangos and experienced Leo Westermann, while inside the Lithuanian champs will get new contributions from Antanas Kavaliauksas and Augusto Cesar Lima. There was also the comeback of a fan-favorite with the return to the fold of three-point ace Arturas Milaknis.
Jasikevicius will have a wild array of talent and experience to choose from when configuring the backcourt. The likely option to start at point would be Pangos, who comes with excellent credentials from the EuroCup last season, as he led Gran Canaria to the semifinals and was chosen to the All-EuroCup second team in his first pro season. He will have great support from a classic veteran and all-around player in Renaldas Seibutis and local rising talent, Lukas Lekavicius. An experienced, though young, talent like Westermann and local returnee Milaknis will provide spirit, points and assists. The small forward position will be mainly covered by young talent Edgaras Ulanovas, though Saras could opt to play with three-guard lineups at times, too.
The frontcourt is anchored by a Zalgiris classic in the paint, big Robertas Javtokas, who extended his contract with the club this summer. Joining him at the heart of the action will be Lima, on loan from Real Madrid and looking to finally explode in the competition, and Kavaliauksas, fresh from archrival Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius, who will enjoy his EuroLeague debut season despite loads of EuroCup experience under his belt. Another extended player this summer, Brock Motum, will join team leader Paulius Jankunas as the main options for Jasikevicius at power forward. Jankunas was Zalgiri's top scorer last season (12.3 ppg) while Brockum provided support off the bench.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Kevin Pangos made his professional debut last season with Herbalife Gran Canaria Las Palmas and he took the EuroCup by storm. He quickly became a starter for coaching legend Aito Garcia-Reneses and he delivered in spades. Pangos ranked fifth overall in assists (4.8 apg.), while he also averaged 11.9 points, including a 31-point performance against MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg. His season was as consistent as they come and he earned a selection to the All-EuroCup Second Team. Now, at only 23 years of age, Pangos arrives to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague through a team full of tradition and relying in young raw talent in Zalgiris Kaunas. This union looks like a match made in heaven, especially with a coach that used to be an energetic playmaker himself. Expect Pangos to have plenty of opportunities to showcase his talent on the top basketball stage on the continent as he takes the next step in his progression in European basketball and, perhaps, takes his new team one step further, too.
Zalgiris Kaunas stayed true to its own philosophy and basketball recipe of collecting local talents, whether homegrown or from other Lithuanian clubs, together with a few key additions from abroad. But the test will not only be on the court but also on the sidelines, as playing legend turned coach Jasikevicius will start his first season coaching at the top level. Many eyes will be on him and he will have to work with the group fast as over the first month the team will encounter Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens, Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz, Fenerbahce Istanbul and Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv, of whom he is a former player for three. With the new format, the season could seem longer than ever for Zalgiris, especially in the middle segment with four trips in six games to places like Moscow, Madrid, Belgrade and Istanbul. However, the tough heart of the team and its restless spirit will surely be imprinted on the newcomers to create a group that will, like every year, endure to try to bring joy to its passionate fans in the land of basketball.