Lithuanian Is A High-Major Recruit
Roanoke Catholic head coach Dick Wall has plenty to work with this year, despite losing JR Reynolds to Oak Hill. Why? Because he received a great gift from Vilnius, Lithuania.
Paulius Joneliunas, a 6-10 center, came to the United States this year. He figured the U.S. to be the best place for him to concentrate in the classroom and the hardwood.
"In Lithuania, it is more difficult to play basketball and get education at the same time," Joneliunas said. "You must choose between education and basketball." Joneliunas said the college game in his homeland is not that strong.
Back home, Joneliunas would spend half of the day in school and then join his teammates, each of whom hailed from different academic schools, for basketball practice. Last winter, he started with an English class and began thinking of coming to the United States to play.
Joneliunas isn't like most of the foreign players who come over here. That English class he took, well, it paid off. He speaks the language remarkably well and that has translated into academic success early in the States. He achieved a qualifying score on the SAT his first try. That should come as no surprise because all of the recent foreign players to come through Roanoke Catholic have been outstanding students, including Jonas Norbutas and Tadas Mankevicius, a pair of freshmen at VMI.
On the hardwood, Joneliunas is a high-major prospect. At 258 pounds he's a big target on the blocks. Like many foreign big men, he has a nice skill set on offense. Granted, we didn't see him in a game, but in practice he showed the ability to face up and stick medium-range jumpers; his coach says his range can be extended.
He also knocked down a half hook off a block move and we saw him finish inside well with both hands. His personality is that of a laid back and polite young man and that's how he plays right now at least until you get him the ball.
Once he catches, Joneliunas goes to work. It seems as though his intensity level rises with the basketball in his hands and he becomes aggressive on offense.
"His footwork is far advanced from American big men," Wall said. "That's what they work on [in Lithuania]. He's got great footwork. He's a work in progress but he's a very good shooter."
He might be a work in progress, but there's a lot to work with. At this point in the recruiting year, finding a 258-pounder with skill is like paying $5 to gem mine in the mountains and finding a $20,000 diamond.
With that said, Joneliunas will need to pick his college wisely. He doesn't appear to be a guy whose game is best suited for up tempo basketball, but again, we didn't see him in a game situation. Countryman Darius Songaila was intense and nasty; Joneliunas is more subdued but apparently eager to learn and looks quite coachable. He's a big man's big man. Get him on the blocks, give him touches and we think he'll produce.
"He's a basketball player," Wall said, "who happens to be a big guy. He's not a basketball player because he's big." Clearly, Joneliunas has a feel for the game. Twice in practice he zipped accurate passes over his shoulder to cutters for lay-ups. He wasn't showing off, he was thinking the game.
Joneliunas played with the Lithuanian Junior National Team last summer and came off the bench for the team. His next trip back home to Lithuania will be this summer so he can meet up with the team and play in the world championships in Malaysia.
Meanwhile, Paulius (pronounced Po-lis) will continue feasting on his new favorite American entrée: pizza doused with ketchup. He'll play his first high school game Saturday against Bishop McGuiness.
On Monday, South Carolina head coach Dave Odom was in the gym evaluating him. Wall said that South Carolina has offered Joneliunas a scholarship and that makes sense given Odom's affinity for Lithuanians. Richmond, SMU, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia have also offered. Clemson, NC State and North Carolina have shown interest but have not offered.
Joneliunas has four official visits remaining. He made one trip to SMU this fall. "It was good. It's a good city. I knew nothing about their team. They have one Lithuanian coach and a freshman player."
He also took an unofficial visit to South Carolina with Wall and it would appear the Gamecocks are in line for an official trip.
There's talent around Joneliunas this year on the Celtics' roster. Shooting guard Matt Nowlin is headed to Elon where both of his parents graduated from. Guards Tadas Stanaitis and Tony Hairston are receiving Division I interest as well. Stanaitis, as you might have guessed from the name, is also Lithuanian.
RC's Senior Standouts
left to right: Joneliunas and Nowlin (top); Stanaitis and Hairston