Lithuanian champion Zalgiris Kaunas kept the core of its successful roster from the past few seasons intact while adding in four new faces, bringing back two more. Point guard Alex Perez, forward Nigel Hayes and center Jock Landale are all in line to make their respective EuroLeague debuts this season, while big man Zach LeDay brings a season of experience in the top level with him from Olympiacos Piraeus. Zalgiris signed center Martinas Geben in the summer of 2018, but he spent last season on loan with Juventus Utena and was the Lithuanian League MVP. Now he is back in Kaunas to prove himself in the EuroLeague. Another returnee is point guard Lukas Lekavicius, a product of the Zalgiris youth system who played three seasons for the senior team before donning another green uniform, that of Panathinaikos OPAP Athens, the past two season.
It has been said that being a playmaker under Coach Sarunas Jasikevicus at Zalgiris is like attending point guard university and Alex Perez is now in line for an advanced degree. Already an experienced player with stints in three European countries and his native Mexico, Perez is a team-first player, a tenacious defender and a capable scorer. Can he become a superstar under Saras's tutelage? Lukas Lekavicius returns to the fold after two seasons abroad. His superior shooting makes him dangerous and his playmaking keeps defenses on their toes. After two seasons as Nick Calathes's understudy, Lekavicius may be even more dangerous now that he’s home. Teenager Rokas Jokubaitis cracked the lineup last season and had many bright spots, but he may be a season away from a regular rotation spot. With Marius Grigonis, Thomas Walkup and Arturas Milaknis, Zalgiris has three very different, trusted and experienced guards for the wings. Grigonis and Milaknis are elite shooters, while Walkup is a more physical player, who does his damage closer to the basket. Though Milaknis is almost exclusively a three-point ace, Grigonis is an overall scoring weapon who will attack the basket, too.
Do-it-all small forward Edgaras Ulanovas led the team in minutes last season. He is tough, consistent and hungry for victories. Nigel Hayes was among the best players in the 7DAYS EuroCup last season and at age 24, he is only getting better. A major offensive weapon, Hayes can rebound from either forward spot and has a nose for steals, too. Zach LeDay was dominant in the paint as a sixth man for the Reds - he had six games off the bench with a performance index rating of at least 20. He may have an even bigger role for Zalgiris. Veteran Paulius Jankunas remains a consistent force, whose bag of low-post moves and mid-range jumpers remain as effective as in his youth. Jock Landale was among the best big men in the EuroCup and the Adriatic League last season. Together with Laurynas Birutis and Martinas Geben, Zalgiris has plenty of size and muscle inside. Each of the three centers will be kept fresh and they cannot be double-teamed, because of the quality of the outside shooters and the '4' men.
PLAYER TO WATCH
For the fourth season in a row, Nigel Hayes begins his campaign in a new place. The first time was in college at the University of Wisconsin. A year later, he spent training camp with New York of the NBA and would go on to play for three different NBA teams and two G-League teams in that season. Last year, Hayes came to Europe and dominated with Galatasaray Istanbul; he ranked among the top 10 in the 7DAYS EuroCup Regular Season in scoring and performance index rating while posting a 50/40/90 shooting campaign. Hayes said he came to Zalgiris to work hard under Coach Jasikevicius, who will make him a better player. Hayes brings with him great athleticism alongside the aforementioned shooting, toughness and hunger. If it all comes together at Zalgiris, he may be this team's top weapon.
Zalgiris has made back-to-back playoff appearances while sending three different players to the All-EuroLeague team in that span. Each year, Coach Jasikevicius has had to undergo a minor rebuild as blossoming stars leave for teams with bigger budgets and Zalgiris finds new talents and surges forward. This season can be very much like the previous two; it may take time for all the talent on the team to gel and come together the way Saras wants, but once he has his fighting unit maximizing their talent and playing at his intensity level, Zalgiris has all the tools to reach the playoffs once more.