U18 Rytas Vilnius's chances of repeating its title at the Euroleague Basketball Adidas Next Generation Tournament Finals are rooted quite heavily in the performance of Azuolas Tubelis. That really shouldn't be a surprise, given his name.
Azuolas is quite uncommon in Lithuania and translates to oak – with the oak tree being sacred in many religions and mythologies, including in Lithuania.
"My grandfather wanted to give that name to me and everything happened like that. I like my name very much and I'm happy with that,” said Tubelis. And the oak tree is also known for its strength and hardness - two very fitting traits to describe the forward. "I believe that fits well for me," he said.
Tubelis was quite important in helping Rytas to the first-place game of the ANGT Kaunas, where he averaged 15.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 3.0 steals and 2.8 blocks for a performance index rating of 24.5. But his 15 points, 7 rebounds, 4 steals and 5 blocks in the first-place game were not enough as Rytas lost to U18 Zalgiris Kaunas.
Nonetheless, Rytas received a wild card for the ANGT Finals in Vitoria-Gasteiz, where it will face U18 Valencia Basket, U18 Real Madrid and U18 Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade in Group B as the reigning champion.
"All the teams in our group are strong and it is hard to predict anything in this group. It will be hard for all the teams," said Tubelis, who was born in 2002 and is a year younger than the competition allows.
The 2.02 meter forward knows he and his teammates will have a target on their back as the reigning champs. "All the games at the ANGT Finals will be like a final for us," he said.
Tubelis did not play at the ANGT Kaunas last season, but joined the club at the ANGT Finals in Belgrade as a player two years younger and impressed by averaging 8.0 points, 2.0 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in 17 minutes. And Rytas went through the field undefeated to win its second U18 continental crown.
"I have only the best memories about last season and the ANGT Finals in Serbia. We faced very good teams and got exceptional experience," he said.
Last year was not only positives for Tubelis as he played for Lithuania at the FIBA U16 European Championship and lost to eventual champion Croatia 80-78 in the quarterfinals. Tubelis collected 22 points, 17 rebounds, 3 steals and 4 blocks in the final eight game, but could only watch as teammate Edgaras Preibys had his game-tying layup attempt blocked by Croatia's Matej Bosnjak at the buzzer.
"It was a very memorable tournament because we lost to the eventual champion in the last moments of the game," said Tubelis, who averaged 14.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 2.7 blocks in the tournament. "I still remember that block in the last seconds of the game."
Tubelis said he has used the loss as a learning opportunity: "Every time you lose, you have to learn that lesson: think about what you did wrong and what you could do different," he said.
That U16 tournament was also an opportunity for Tubelis to represent Lithuania while playing alongside his twin brother Tautvilas, who averaged 3.4 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.0 assists.
"We know each other very well. That helps us on the court. All of the family was proud of us," Azuolas Tubelis said. "He is a good player and I believe that he has a bright future in front of him."
Azuolas admitted he struggles when playing against Tautvilas: "When we play one on one, it's very hard for me. Unfortunately, Tautvilas wins almost all the time."
Azuolas will have a long time to work on his game at Rytas after he signed a long-term deal with the club from his home city.
"It means a lot for me. I have perfect conditions to improve my game in my hometown," Tubelis said.
The focus now shifts to Vitoria-Gasteiz and defending the ANGT title.
"Our aim is to leave everything we have on the court and try to win this tournament," he said. "We have to play our game and believe in ourselves. I believe in our team and hope for the best in this tournament."
Tubelis's belief in his team is deep-rooted – just as you would expect with a first name like Azuolas.