Between Maccabi and Partizan: the bait that kept Rolands Smits in Zalgiris

Donatas Urbonas
Senior Staff Writer
2023-06-08 10:00

Rolands Smits will be among the highest-paid Zalgiris players in recent years, per BasketNews sources.

Credit: ┼Żygimantas Gedvila/BNS
Credit ┼Żygimantas Gedvila/BNS

"Where is the best place to catch fish around here?"

Which EuroLeague GM wouldn't want such issues to be the biggest when dealing with one of the star players on the team?

Zalgiris Kaunas assistant GM Paulius Jankunas recalled several fishing trips of Rolands Smits, where he returned with empty buckets.

3-pointers this season

Points made: 7,8
Accuracy: 36,1%
Place in standings: 16
Record max: 16
Record min: 2
Most made 3FGs: Rolands Smits

Smits is an enthusiastic fisherman. While playing for Zalgiris, he resides on the shores of Lampedis quarry in Kaunas, so he frequently plunges his fishing rod there.

The basketball player has even found a group of Lithuanian fishers with whom he gathers his fishing gear to go fishing along the Nevezis River during his free time.

His teammates laugh that Smits even brought his boat from Latvia.

"He's just such a down-to-earth guy..." chuckled Jankunas.

Fishing, in a way, resembles free agency.

Three fishermen can sail to the same lake but return to the shore with different catches. Fish biting is influenced by numerous factors, ranging from water clarity to how hungry the fish is.

Similarly, in basketball, the possibilities of signing a contract with a particular player depend not only on the quality of your boat or fishing rod.

When 27-year-old Smits entered the EuroLeague market, he caught the attention of three main suitors: Partizan Belgrade, Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Zalgiris.

Partizan had Zeljko Obradovic, one of the best fanbase in Europe, and an ambitious EuroLeague campaign in the 2022-23 season.

Maccabi could have offered a three-year deal with a solid core that was formed behind what was named the best backcourt in the EuroLeague, with Lorenzo Brown and Wade Baldwin.

But in the Rolands Smits' world, the options were clear.

He has a leading role in the EuroLeague playoff team. He has immense trust from his teammates, coaching staff, and the entire organization. As his friends told him before moving from Barcelona to Kaunas, he received excellent conditions in Zalgiris.

Everything fits and brings joy to him and his wife here, starting from the conveniently located kindergarten just two minutes away from home to the proximity to his home country, Latvia, where his relatives can swiftly come to help or visit whenever needed.

And when he needs to clear his mind, he can peacefully immerse his fishing rod next to his house and dive into his zone.

2.08 m Smits carefully considered everything and committed to Zalgiris Kaunas until 2026 (with the exit clauses beginning in 2024).

"I feel very good and important here," Smits said to BasketNews. "Nobody knows how it would be in other places, but so far, I like how the club works here, and I'm really enjoying it here. It's close to my hometown, so my family and friends can come easily. Before my move, all people who played there said I'm not going to regret it, it's a good choice, and I'll enjoy it. I feel very good and happy there."

Rolands Smits' EuroLeague stats

22/23 Zalgiris 22:51 57.6%
1.1 0.4 1.4 0.1 2.9 1.9 9.7 9.4

Of course, the most attractive bait played a significant role as well. According to BasketNews sources, Smits will be among the highest-paid Zalgiris players in recent years.

This is not only a praise for Smits but also a huge responsibility that this contract carries for an organization that typically refrains from entering into such contracts.

However, Jankunas, the all-time EuroLeague leader in games played (392), better than anyone else, knows the value of a player like Smits.

Having spent 18 EuroLeague seasons with Zalgiris, the Lithuanian was a unique big man who could play both power forward and center positions. Similar to Smits, he could effectively operate in the paint, stretch the floor, and use his physicality to grab rebounds on offense or defend opponents in his paint.

In 2018, Jankunas' skills were recognized when he was selected for the All-EuroLeague Second Team.

"We understand the type of person we have on our team, the level of player he is, and the benefits he brings to us. Not always through points, but with his dangerous presence," Jankunas told BasketNews.

"He covers two positions for us. He draws defense on him. He is extremely versatile with his posting and shooting. He's a very solid athlete. He's a modern big man. Such individuals are rare. He came from Barcelona, wanting to have a good season - he got that and proved our trust in him," he added.

"And what a great character he has. He is a vital figure for us, and we believe he can still improve his game. It was one of our main off-season goals to retain him. It was certainly not easy, as he proved his worth. We really wanted to keep him and are delighted that we succeeded."

The market also dictated Zalgiris' decision.

As Jankunas stated, big men of this style are becoming a rarity in the EuroLeague. Last season's example, where several strong EuroLeague teams struggled to find players with Smits' profile during the season, also motivated Zalgiris not to hold back.

Furthermore, Smits' ability to play as a center allowed Zalgiris to save on this position, where Kazys Maksvytis will have Kevarrius Hayes and Laurynas Birutis at his disposal.

If Smits had gone to Tel Aviv or Belgrade, Zalgiris would likely have had to overpay for a power forward in the challenging market with many other EuroLeague clubs in the race.

"It's very strange for me because there seems to be a power forward shortage both in the Lithuanian national team and the EuroLeague," Jankunas said. "When I talk to ex-Lithuanian players, we joke that in our time, we had Linas Kleiza, Darius Songaila, the Lavrinovic brothers, and myself. There was an excess of players in this position. And how quickly everything changes."

"If Smits had left, we would have faced huge problems finding such a player because now all clubs need these combo big men. And not only would we have to find a new person, but also integrate him into the team," Jankunas explained.

"Whereas here, he has already played for a year. His second or third year in Kaunas should be even more successful because we know how to utilize him, and he knows how to be effective. I believe he is one of the best players in his position in the EuroLeague and one of the most significant Zalgiris signings of this offseason. We thank him for deciding to stay with us."

Smits' stock rose high throughout the season, but according to BasketNews sources, one of the EuroLeague powerhouses hesitated after the Latvian's appearance in the playoff series.

Sarunas Jasikevicius contained his former player to just 3.3 points and a 2.7 PIR per game in the 0-3 series loss to Barcelona.

However, Zalgiris showed all-around support for the big man, not only with the contract extension until 2026 but also through conversations.

"It was tough for him. We know the homework Sarunas Jasikevicius prepares. After all, he worked with him for two years, so he knows him very well. Moreover, playing against Nikola Mirotic and Barcelona is not easy," Jankunas recalled Smits' reaction after the Barcelona series.

"In the LKL quarterfinal series against Nevezis Kedainiai later, he still didn't look like himself, which showed in his decision-making. The guy went through a lot. Say what you will, but he definitely wanted to perform against Barcelona, Saras, and Mirotic... We are athletes - ambitious people, and he had the ambition to prove himself," he continued.

"We had several conversations. I haven't completely killed the player within me, and I understand very well what players feel and how to deal with it. I know how to handle those situations. But Rolands is just... He's such a simple Latvian guy who loves fishing and honesty. There's no need to prepare anything or tell him fairytales. Just be natural, speak openly with him, and support him," Jankunas explained to BasketNews.


The status of being the highest-paid player also demands top-caliber performance.

Averaging 9.7 points (57.6% 2P, 38.3% 3P), 4.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and a 9.4 PIR, the Latvian player will need to be even more solid and consistent in the 2023-24 season.

"During the negotiations, I had several conversations with him. I told him that his role would have to change with the contract extension, his second season in Kaunas, and his importance to the team," Jankunas continued. "But it won't change in the sense that the coaches will draw more plays for him. He will have to take on more responsibility. Everyone expects more from him. I expressed that to him, and he understood it perfectly. I believe the upcoming year should be even more successful for him."

Smits embraces the mission ahead.

"This is a big responsibility, but I'm not scared of it. I will do my best to help the team. I can do better everywhere. I know, and I hope I will do better next season," Smits said.


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