Modestas Kancleris used to think he was a pretty athletic player. But a trip to the United States last summer helped turn the forward into a leader who guided U18 Zalgiris Kaunas back to the Euroleague Basketball Adidas Next Generation Tournament Finals.
Kancleris was Zalgiris's third-leading scorer at the ANGT Kaunas tournament with 11.0 points per game while finishing as the team's leader in rebounds (7.3 rpg.), steals (2.5 spg.) and blocked shots (2.3 bpg.). He also dished out 1.5 assists for the undefeated hosts.
"It means a lot to win. Before the tournament, we were not expecting that much, we were not expecting to win the first-place game. But we played good defense and had good communication within the team and had good team chemistry. So we are very happy to be going to Vitoria-Gasteiz," Kancleris said.
The 2.03-meter forward really stepped up his play from his previous two ANGT Kaunas appearances. After averaging 4.0 points and 3.0 rebounds at the Kaunas tournament in 2016-17, he had 2.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 0.8 steals last season. Part of the reason for the improved play was Kancleris spending last summer in the United States playing AAU basketball - an organized circuit of amateur competitions.
"After the FIBA U16 European Championship 2017, there was a camp in Lithuania and some coaches from the United States came to the practices and one knew that I was interested in US basketball. So he invited me to play some AAU tournaments. I went there for one month. I enjoyed the basketball," said Kancerlis, who ended up playing in the southeastern state of Alabama.
The experience was truly eye-opening for the Kaunas native.
"Before that, I thought I had a pretty good athleticism. But then I went there and saw that I had so much more work to do," Kancleris admitted.
Kancleris and some of his Zalgiris teammates were also extra motivated at this season's ANGT Kaunas because they were part of the team that failed to reach last year's ANGT Kaunas first-place game. The loss to U18 Stellazzurra Rome in group play snapped a 22-game winning streak in the tournament in Kaunas.
"Last year we expected more. It was a tough loss. This year we were motivated to try to win everything," Kancleris said.
The disappointment last season in Kaunas was the second major setback in basketball that Kancleris experienced. In the summer of 2017, he averaged 9.1 points and 6.9 rebounds for Lithuania at the FIBA U16 European Championship. But the team lost to Turkey in the game for sixth place, which meant Lithuania missed out on going to the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2018. That came after Lithuania finished third at the U17 World Cup in 2016.
"Some of the older generations sometimes say to us they were in the World Cup and finished third, and they kind of laugh at us. But this year we have FIBA U18 European Championship 2019, so we are going for the win," Kancleris said.
Before that tournament this summer, Kancleris will be shooting for success at the ANGT Finals in Vitoria-Gasteiz, where Zalgiris is drawn into Group A with U18 Mega Bemax Belgrade, U18 Maccabi Teddy Tel Aviv and U18 FC Bayern Munich. Zalgiris missed the ANGT Finals last season for the first time since 2008-09. And while the club has hoisted the U18 continental crown twice - in 2003 and 2007 - and reached three more ANGT Championship Games, the last time it played for the title was in 2011, when it lost to U18 KK Zagreb.
"We'll do our best. We are for sure going there to win. The team is really ready to go to Vitoria-Gasteiz," Kancleris said. "We need to work hard on defense and play with a big heart."