The least expected undefeated World Cup team: what makes them dangerous?

Donatas Urbonas
Senior Staff Writer
2023-09-02 12:17

Lithuania is emerging as a dark horse in the World Cup, equipped with the tools to surprise the projected powerhouses.

Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

A couple of months before the World Cup, FIBA ranked them 15th.

Even within their own country, there weren't high expectations until the final rosters were confirmed.

In a World Cup where four teams hadn't lost any of their four games, not many thought they would be one of them, especially alongside groups like the USA, Slovenia, and Germany.

Meet Lithuania, the most unexpected undefeated team in the World Cup.


"Who's next?" - Lithuania's biggest star, Jonas Valanciunas, reacted on the BasketNews Instagram account when we announced that Kestutis Kemzura, who had taken on the role of assistant coach, was leaving the national team coaching staff just a couple of weeks before the start of the training camp.

Valanciunas, who hasn't missed a single major FIBA tournament in 16 years, expressed his frustration when yet another team member canceled their reservation for the national team camp.

Players like Domantas Sabonis, Marius Grigonis, Rokas Giedraitis, Edgaras Ulanovas, Arnas Butkevicius, Lukas Lekavicius, and Arturas Gudaitis, for various reasons, declined to represent Lithuania in the World Cup. Lithuania could have assembled a second national team with all these players that wouldn't bring shame to the world stage.

However, the remaining national team became an example that the biggest names don't always guarantee the best results and vice-versa.


Above all, the choice made by Lithuania's top star, Domantas Sabonis, not to participate in the World Cup was both disappointing and, in a way, a relief for coach Kazys Maksvytis.

He didn't have to struggle anymore with how to make Valanciunas and Sabonis work together on the court. No coach had successfully outlined the specific roles for these two NBA players, and previous attempts to please both Sabonis and Valanciunas had failed.

Valanciunas became the primary low-post threat in the World Cup, guaranteeing points in the paint. Up to this point, he has been performing as anticipated, putting up 14.0 points (with an impressive 69.2% shooting from two-point range), grabbing 9.7 rebounds, dishing out 1.0 assists, recording 1.0 blocks, and posting an efficiency rating of 18.3.

The issue of role distribution was resolved for other key positions as well.

Rokas Jokubaitis knew that the primary ball-handling duties would rest on his young shoulders.

Before the World Cup, Jokubaitis, 22, hadn't entirely lived up to the hype and potential he carried from the last few years. He also stumbled in the World Cup opener, scoring just 2 points on 0-for-6 shooting and committing three turnovers against Egypt. However, he rebounded like a seasoned star.

In the three following games against Mexico, Montenegro, and Greece, Jokubaitis averaged an impressive 17.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game, earning an efficiency score of 23.3. The FC Barcelona playmaker also impacted from beyond the arc, hitting 7 of 8 three-pointers.

His teammates appreciate his ability to control the game and guide the offense, even though he's one of the youngest starting playmakers in the tournament at just 22 years old.

"When I recall how I played at his age and my decision-making, I can only give him immense credit for how effectively he handles those high-level challenges he faces. He's well aware that we might face a tough game if he doesn't perform. His opening game was challenging, much like last year. However, he rapidly learns from his mistakes and improves," said Mindaugas Kuzminskas.

With Marius Grigonis opting out, Ignas Brazdeikis became the sole true scorer who could and should take control when the play broke down, and Lithuania needed a last-second 1-on-1 solution.

Teammates have noticed that Brazdeikis is less prone to forcing plays, reads the situations better, and shares the ball more willingly than last year. This has translated into impressive efficiency numbers.

The Zalgiris wingman is currently averaging 11.5 points per game on 54.5% shooting from the 2-point range and an impressive 70% from beyond the arc. He's also contributing with 4.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists per game, and an efficiency score of 14.0.

His mistakes have decreased from 2.2 in the previous EuroBasket to just 1.0 in the World Cup, and his shooting percentage has increased by a remarkable 20.7%

All the other players around this core group presented themselves as either specialists, defensive bulldogs or all-around veterans whose team success took priority over personal ambitions.

For instance, a former New York Knicks forward, Mindaugas Kuzminskas, had barely made the rotation in the 2019 World Cup and the 2021 Olympic Qualifying tournament in Kaunas.

However, under the guidance of Kazys Maksvytis, he managed to regain his confidence and return to his usual role.

As a 33-year-old veteran, Kuzminskas is delivering a solid performance in the World Cup, averaging 10.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.5 assists while shooting an impressive 75% from the 2-point range and 46.2% from beyond the arc. He's been making crucial shots in pivotal moments of the games.

"He never gives up. He always wants it. He loves basketball. He goes out there, fights, and gives it his all. Sometimes, he may falter, sometimes, he's better. But he's always there when we need him," Valanciunas recalled Kuzminskas' contribution.

"We have twelve capable players. There's no distinction between who's playing and who's not. Everyone has their role, and everyone knows what they're doing. Everyone contributes something to the team. We don't have a standout leader or someone who can't play. All twelve are equal, and all twelve play," the captain said.

Donatas Motiejunas returned to the national team after a six-year absence from major FIBA competitions.

He's putting up 7.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game on 54.5% shooting in just 15 minutes of play.

However, his impact extends beyond the court. Motiejunas mentors young players and shares his wealth of experience to prepare them for the challenge ahead. AS Monaco big made it clear to coach Maksvytis that he has no complaints about reduced playing time as long as it contributes to Lithuania's success.

Tadas Sedekerskis provides an excellent defensive solution to help cover for Jonas Valanciunas.

For example, coach Kazys Maksvytis assigned him to guard Nikola Vucevic in the much-anticipated Valanciunas vs. Vucevic showdown between Lithuania and Montenegro.

Sedekerskis, who plays for Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz, has demonstrated his significance by ranking third in minutes played per game. This is remarkable, considering it's his first experience representing the senior national team in a major FIBA competition.

"I would give him a 10," Jokubaitis assessed Sedekerskis' defense against Vucevic, who was limited to 9 points on 3-of-10 shooting in the first three quarters when Lithuania built a winning lead.

Bendzius continued solidifying his reputation as a sharpshooter by hitting 3 of 4 three-pointers against Greece.

Additionally, players like Tomas Dimsa, Margiris Normantas, Vaidas Kariniauskas, Gabrielius Maldunas, and Deividas Sirvydis made significant contributions off the bench on multiple occasions.

Every player on this team has a specific role under the guidance of coach Maksvytis.

Lithuania cruised past its first four World Cup opponents with an average margin of 25.25 points, facing potential dark horses like Montenegro and Greece on the way.

But what left the biggest impression was not the margin but the fashion of how Lithuania defeated these opponents.

Rephrasing Donatas Motiejunas, Lithuania overwhelmed the Greeks with the essence of this Lithuanian team – intense pressure from the baseline, relentless fight for every ball, dictating the tempo, and playing team basketball.

In statistical terms, Lithuania ranks in the Top 5 among the highest-scoring teams, averaging 93.0 points per game. They lead in field goal shooting with a remarkable 54.1%, top the charts in 3-point shooting at 44.0%, lead in rebounds with an average of 44.5 per game, and are second in blocked shots with an average of 5.0 per game.

Kazys Maksvytis is riding high on the success of 2023, which began with the unexpected qualification of Zalgiris for the EuroLeague playoffs. Now, he has led Lithuania back to the Top 8 of major FIBA competitions for the first time in the last seven years.

His personal qualities, trust in the leaders, and playing style emphasizing teamwork allowed him to build a winning group that astonished the basketball world.

"The way we play together in this World Cup... We enjoy every second of it. Reaching the Top 8 is a significant accomplishment. If we continue to play like we did in the second half against Greece, we might achieve something remarkable," Rokas Jokubaitis concludes.

FIBA tournaments aren't solely about the most prominent stars on the pre-game statistics sheet. They're about hitting your peak at the right moment, establishing the best chemistry within a group in a matter of weeks, both on and off the court, encountering a bit of luck, and displaying character when it matters.

So far, Lithuania seems to have it all.

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