EUROPEANS IN THE NBA
|Donatas Motiejunas established himself as a top-level forward in Europe, prior to his move stateside|
During the first few months of the current NBA season, Lithuanian fans had only one rookie whose progress to monitor with religious devotion, night in and night out.
Jonas Valanciunas, the FIBA Europe Young Player of the Year for 2012, was off to a promising start at the Toronto Raptors, more or less in line with the expectations that had been deposited upon him ever since he took Europe by storm at the U18 European Championship in 2010.
Meanwhile another Lithuanian big man, Donatas Motiejunas, was having a hard time adapting and looked destined to spent his first year in the USA almost in limbo, alternating games in the D-League with few and far between testimonial appearances with the Houston Rockets.
Then in late February, just before the NBA transfer deadline, something changed in the Houston frontcourt.
The Rockets chose to trade power forwards Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris and center Cole Aldrich and bring in just one forward, rookie Thomas Robinson.
It was not a calculated risk, but rather a conscious decision by head coach Kevin McHale, a legendary power forward on the 1980's Boston Celtics side and a member of the NBA Hall of Fame.
McHale must know a thing or two about talented big men and he certainly knew whose time it was to step up.
On 27 February, in a home game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Motejiunas made his first start in his NBA career, staying on the court for 26 minutes and contributing 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
"When you start from the bench, you can be more relaxed," he told the Houston Chronicle.
"When you're a starter, you have to be more focused.
"I know how to play from a starting position. It takes more concentration, that's for sure."
It might had been his first game as a starter in the NBA, but of course the former Zalgiris - Arvydas Sabonis School graduate had been in this position during his time at both Benetton Treviso and Asseco Prokom, before crossing the Atlantic.
The 22-year-old Lithuanian started not at center but at the four spot, alongside another European, Omer Asik.
|Jonas Valanciunas, Lithuania's second rookie in the NBA, could team up with Motiejunas for Lithuania this summer|
The Turkish international has established himself as the starting center at Houston with his fantastic performances this season, as he averages 10.5 points and 11.7 rebounds per game.
McHale liked what he saw from this fronctourt duo so much, that Motiejunas has stayed put in the starting line-up and made his fourth consecutive start on Wednesday night, in the 112-108 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
"The first couple of games were harder," Motiejunas said.
"Now I'm kind of getting into shape, I will continue working in the weight room so my muscles get a tone."
"After the first couple of games, my body feels a pain.
"The practice is not like a game. It's a different speed, a different intensity, different muscles working. You cannot simulate them in practice.
In his four games as a starter, Motiejunas has averaged 11.25 points, 4.5 rebounds and two assists.
Meanwhile over at Toronto, Valanciunas, who was sidelined for approximately 40 days due to injury and returned to action in the beginning of February, averages 6.8 points and 5.5 rebounds, having started in 30 of the 44 games he's featured in so far.
Come September, both NBA rookies could be locked in an unofficial battle to start at center for Lithuania at EuroBasket 2013.
National team head coach Jonas Kazlauskas, just like the entire Baltic nation, will be keeping an eye on both until the end of the season and beyond.