Donatas Motiejunas Expands Elite Camp in Lithuania, Supported by Arvydas Sabonis

(Photo by Audrius Solominas)

Donatas Motiejunas started his NBA career in 2012 with the Rockets knowing exactly how he wanted to best utilize his earnings off the court. But it wasn’t a typical business investment or real estate property. His mind was on youth development thousands of miles away.

The 21-year-old at the time wanted to capitalize on a vision he had for a long time: starting his own elite camp back home in Lithuania for the country’s top 30-plus teenagers, 14 to 16 years old, to better prepare them for the men’s national team, the highest level of club competition in the Euroleague and then eventually the NBA. The first summer after the big man’s rookie campaign, the Donatas Motiejunas Talent Camp was created.

“I built it from nothing,” Motiejunas, a current free agent, told the NBPA. “My first year, I paid a lot of money from my own pocket that I will never ask back. I see a bigger purpose in the camp than money.”

Earlier this month marked Motiejunas’ fourth annual camp in his hometown of Kaunas, the second-largest city in Lithuania, with the support of adidas as the main sponsor since 2014. He called this year’s camp “by far the most successful” based on the fluidity of the five-day schedule and the increased attendance of basketball personnel who came from the Eurocamp in Treviso. He said the biggest addition he’d like to see next year is more scouts in attendance.

(Photo by Audrius Solominas)

(Photo by Audrius Solominas)

“Other than that, adidas does a great job taking care of the kids, getting all the T-shirts, shoes, free transportation, free living, free food,” he said. “They put a lot of money in it, and I think it’s one of the biggest deals at this point from the adidas side and Lithuania. It’s huge. There’s a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of energy about the camp. The camp is going really well. For next year, we’re already talking about expanding it two more days.”

Motiejunas is at the camp every day through the evening, participating in the drills, working individually with the big men and coaching from the sidelines. He never wanted to be a player who showed up just for a day to sign autographs. He wanted to do something different. He saw a “bigger purpose” tied to his country’s basketball growth.

A key reason why Motiejunas focuses on the best youth players from Lithuania is to strengthen the core of the men’s national team and better prepare them for the pros. Along with Motiejunas, the country has only produced 10 NBA players through this past season, including Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas and fellow countrymen Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Linas Kleiza, Sarunas Marciulionis, Arvydas Sabonis and Darius Songaila.

While no campers yet since the first year have reached the men’s national team, about 80 percent of the U-18 national team is comprised of teenagers who went through the camp, according to Motiejunas’ agent, Tadas Bulotas. In addition, all 12 teenagers of the U-17 national team are former campers, and this year they won the bronze medal at the FIBA World Championship. Former campers also from the U-16 squad won the bronze medal in their respective division.

(Photo by Audrius Solominas)

(Photo by Audrius Solominas)

Currently, 12 former campers have signed pro contracts with well-known clubs in Europe, including BC Lietuvos rytas and BC Zalgiris in Lithuania, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain, Brose Baskets Bamberg in Germany and Mens Sana Basket 1871 in Italy.

Motiejunas’ goal is that three of the campers make it to the NBA or the main roster of their Euroleague team.

“We just work on the quality things that they really are going need, instead of just inviting a bunch of kids,” he said. “Let’s really focus on the main group, those kids who are the future. The oldest ones are 16, so the next step when I was their age is the men’s basketball team. If a young guy comes on to the team and the coach sees that he doesn’t know something, you sit one year on the bench. So my goal was that these kids would get a lot of information at this camp. And when the moment comes for them to know something, they’re already doing this stuff in my camp.”

To lead the instruction, Motiejunas enlisted the help of some renowned European coaches who guided him to the NBA. This year, the coaching class was headlined by former Argentine standout Marcelo Nicola, who played on the same Italian team, Benetton Treviso, years before Motiejunas was there from 2009-2011. Motiejunas used to spend hours after practice getting extra shots up with Nicola, and continued to train with him in the summers.

The others were Rimantas Grigas and Rimvydas Samulenas, who coached Motiejunas when he was 14 and 15 years old; Alar Varrak, the coach of the Estonian championship team Kalev/Cramo; and Matt Brase, the Rockets’ former director of player development who is now the head coach of the D-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers. For the past two years, the Rockets have sent one of their staffers to Lithuania to help Motiejunas with the camp, which features morning exercises, evening games and practices, and bonding time at bowling alleys and water parks.

(Photo by Audrius Solominas)

Coach Marcelo Nicola leads a drill at the camp. (Photo by Audrius Solominas)

“We bring really big names when you talk about the Euroleague coaches that are willing to help these kids, so it’s phenomenal,” Motiejunas said. “Every single coach that works in the camp used to work with me, so I know what each coach brings and how beneficial it is. We teach more fundamentals, like defensive rotations and shell drills. From my perspective, they need to prepare themselves for European basketball first and then they need to develop themselves for NBA basketball.”

Motiejunas received a big assist from the country’s most celebrated player ever, Arvydas Sabonis, who was reelected in May as president of the Lithuanian Basketball Federation. Motiejunas frequently talks to the legend, who provided “D-Mo” access to his Sabonis Basketball Center in Kaunas to host the camp since its inauguration. Sabonis and the Federation also select the campers based on their stats and performance in the country’s high school league.

“For every kid, Sabonis was the face of the national team. I have a huge respect for him,” he said. “So he was really a big influence, and right now I’m happy that he’s helping me with the young kids. The Sabonis Center is the perfect facility. They have four courts. It’s really convenient, it’s really nice, the facility is beautiful. So the kids are practicing in a way that the best players are practicing.”

A spark of excitement filled the gym one day when Sabonis’ son, Domantas, was drafted as the 11th overall pick and became a member of the Thunder.

“Following his father, he’s going to be a really great player and I think he has huge potential,” he said. “I think he’s going to build his name by himself. A lot of people are going to talk about his father, but he’s going to be really good and I think he’s going to overcome that really easy.”

My inspiration. Proud to wear his name on the back of my jersey. #Sabonis #11 #NBADraft

A photo posted by Domantas Sabonis (@dsabonis11) on

At this point with the camp, Motiejunas said it’s hard to know who may be next in line from Lithuania to follow in his footsteps. He also doesn’t feel it’s right to highlight any of the young players yet, because he believes that could mess with their psyche. And that individual praise would go against his camp mission.

“My purpose is to make them equal—all of them—and make them compete and make them reach their goals by themselves,” he said. “At that age, they’re still mentally really weak as a player, so any media can destroy them and make them cocky, and make them think that they’re already good and they’re going to be rich.”

Motiejunas remembers how physically weak he was when he was a teenager. He called his journey to the NBA “not an easy one,” dealing with a lot of ups and downs through his development. He wasn’t the most talented player and he kept hearing how his ceiling was only the Euroleague. But he constantly had the mindset of not how good he was in the moment, but how good he could become, and how much extra effort he needed to reach his next goal.

“My message that I try to tell the kids is that you cannot give up,” he said. “As soon as you’re going to give up, everyone’s going to give up on you. So no matter what the situation is, no matter how hard it is, you have to keep on working and keep on staying focused. And eventually the hard work pays off. As soon as I would reach my goal, I would have another one. As soon as you have that mentality you’re going to become satisfied, you’re done as a person and you’re going to stop growing as a player, as a person. I try and never think about, ‘I’m satisfied.’ I want it even more.”

Motiejunas is now back in Houston continuing to rehab his back. After having lumbar microdiscectomy surgery last April and missing more than half of this past season, he said his back is “pretty straight” and had no issues when he was overseas. However, he’s not sure if he’ll compete in the Olympics due to his free agency, which could leak deep into this month’s training camp and he wouldn’t want to interfere being a late arrival. “The chances [of playing] are pretty good, but right now I’m waiting,” he said.

Motiejunas has been passing the time by watching the UEFA Euro 2016 and improving his skills in the FIFA video game to try to reach the level of James Harden, Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela. The Rockets are hardcore FIFA gamers, and they even bring a portable TV and projector on the road. Motiejunas’ father, Vidas, played soccer growing up, and his family would watch FC Bayern Munich games together.

The reason for tuning into the German soccer team holds a strong connection to Motiejunas’ camp mission of collective success.

“My family would tell me how they play as a team—the same with the German national team.” he said. “A lot of people questioned why they won the [2014] World Cup. They don’t have like superstars like Messi or Ronaldo, but they play together and they play as a unit and sacrifice for each other. So it’s just an inspiring thing for me and I think it’s a nice team to follow.”

Motiejunas hopes those attributes inspire the campers to not only apply themselves in their own careers, but also give back like he did in his community.

“These guys are going to understand what is really the grind and how tough it is to really become a pro,” he said. “On the first day of the camp, I told them, ‘Listen, guys, put yourself 10 years later. Some of you are going to be in the NBA and maybe the same position like I am. And you’re going to want to do something like this camp. Just come to me. I’m going to give you everything to keep on building the same things I’ve been doing.'”

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