With word out the the Toronto Raptors interviewed Sarunas Jasikevicius for its head coaching position, Emmet Ryan on how the work by Saras in Kaunas has shown there’s no limit to his potential on the bench
When Igor Kokoskov got the job with the Phoenix Suns, it was a breakthrough for European coaches and a sign for the likes of Sarunas Jasikevicius that the biggest show of them all was within reach. The glass ceiling had been broken and conquering Europe was no longer the most a young and talented coach like Saras* could hope for. That the opportunity to deliver might come along this fast…look, even I wasn’t calling that.
*For our more NBA centric readers, everyone calls him Saras and if he does get a job there referring to him as Coach Saras or Saras works fine.
He ticks a bunch of boxes. Saras has contended well against the best the NBA had to offer, giving the USA quite a fright as a young man in the semi-finals the Sydney Olympics in 2000. He’s made the jump to the big show as a player before, albeit not too memorably, with his stints at Indiana and Golden State. Most of all, he’s shown the right balance of guile and patience since becoming a head coach.
Saras got the Zalgiris job when the team couldn’t have been less interesting. The Kaunas club was coasting to Lithuanian championships but utterly irrelevant in Euroleague. In the old 24 team format they’d always find a way to make it to the Top 16 phase but then cease to be relevant. It was a dead end job.
BallinEurope now has merch, like actual merch, t-shirts, phone covers, and even pillows. Check it all out on our RedBubble page.
Saras took over past mid-season in 2016 and went to work building the most impressive side in European basketball. In his first full season he took the team with the second lowest budget in Euroleague’s new 16 team format to 10th and was in with a shot at the playoffs for most of the campaign.
That team was duly gutted and most sites figured that even with the hottest property in European coaching on the bench, the best they could hope for was 14th in the past campaign.
Instead, Saras decided he was going to look at fate and laugh. He took Zalgiris to 6th spot at the end of the regular season, keeping the side in with a real shot at home court for most of the campaign. Then he went and beat Olympiacos 3-1 in the playoffs before going toe-to-toe and truly testing a far more powerful Fenerbahce side in the Final Four, the first appearance there for Zalgiris since 199. He capped off the season with the bronze at the Final Four before getting back to routine of dominating in Lithuania.
For our analysis series The Ballin After, post-game interviews, and more, subscribe to BallinEurope’s YouTube channel
Any opening he wants in Europe is his but Saras has been deliberately patient. He’s got a good thing going in Kaunas. He was revered in Lithuania before taking the job purely from his playing career. Now he’s shown that even with a miniscule budget, he could turn his side into one that can compete with anyone on the continent.
There are three natural landing spots for Saras in Europe. Panathinaikos in Athens, Barcelona, and Maccabi Tel Aviv. He won Euroleague titles with all three as a player and has often spoken of his fondness for the clubs. At least two of those jobs have been there for him before but he demured. Neither Barcelona nor Maccabi are, or at least were, in the position Saras needed to take command of the roster and build the type of defensively minded and offensively efficient monster he wants.
So he waits, in Kaunas, knowing that every front office in Europe is ready to jump for him should they wish to replace their coach. Now he’s gone up another level, just by getting invited in for a chat in Toronto, he’s made an already stacked pile of chips grow higher.
The options for Saras are simple. He can stay in Kaunas where, once more, he enters a season with anything better than 15th in Euroleague considered a good year. He can take a job with Barcelona or Maccabi, or even potentially CSKA Moscow where his budget would be obscene by continental standards, and look to build. Or he might get the big offer across the pond in a city where he can build a dynasty.
At 42 and barely two full years as a head coach, it’s not a bad situation.
To keep up to date with everything on BiE, like BallinEurope on Facebook