When Holderness School (Plymouth, N.H.) head coach Jamie Gallagher enjoyed a tremendous boost to his team in the 2003-04 season with the addition of Lithuanian import Martynas Pocius, the prep school educator asked his Euro-star if he knew of anybody else on the other side of the Pond who could help the Bulls.
"I have a friend back home who would do well here," Pocius told his coach, thinking of his best friend in Vilnius. Pocius knew the query was not just about basketball, but also about academic abilities. The Holderness School is not like the prep school basketball factories you often hear about back East, with a number of qualifications that rebuff mercenary athletes and foreign imports:
- You cannot be a one-sport specialist, and instead must participate in a rotation of three different sports or major activities.
- Holderness does not accept post-grads.
- There is no ESL program to prop up someone with anything less than a stellar grasp on the English language.
Pocius, who is headed to Duke this fall on a basketball scholarship, was talking about a true student-athlete who trailed him by one year but outpaced him in the classroom, attending a top academy in Vilnius. Gallagher ran a check on the Lithuanian referral, using a friend at Harvard's admissions department to help interpret academic strength of the foreign transcript. While excited about the academic strength he found, the basketball coach had to be mindful of the hardwood as well.
"Marty, what can he do on the court?" the coach asked.
"Coach, he shoots it better than I do," Pocius deadpanned.
"I don't believe he can shoot better than you," Gallagher fired back, wary of the hyperbole he may be receiving.
"Coach, he's not as athletic as I am, but he can really, really shoot it," said the Duke-bound shooting guard.
With that testimony from his friend, Tomas Balcetis came to America. Neither Gallagher nor the teachers and administrators at the Holderness School have been disappointed since his 2004 arrival. The 6'6" 190-pound wing averaged 14+ points per game in his first season stateside, hitting between three and four three-pointers per game and shooting approximately 50% from deep on the year. Academically, he has taken the school by storm and already ranks #2 in the Class of 2006.
"He's a great kid," Gallagher praises. "It wasn't long before teachers were going out of their way to tell me how much they enjoyed Tomas - how engaging he was in the classroom."
Any lingering concerns about Balcetis' mastery of the language have been obliterated with his performances in his first year of classes. In recent midterm exams, the Lithuanian scored A+ grades in four different classes, including English and AP U.S. History - where he would be expected to have the most difficulty.
A more trying transition came on the basketball court, where the natural shooting guard found himself in a sea of smaller players. Holderness had three senior guards who will play with Division I scholarships next fall and did not need Balcetis' help there. Gallagher played a five-out offense but needed his junior to play inside on the defensive end.
"When I saw that our 6'1" senior point guard was our leading rebounder, I told Tomas that we needed someone to step if we wanted to win a championship," Gallagher recalls. "It was interesting watching him reinvent himself as a player this year. He had to rebound, defend the post and still play outside on offense. He ended up averaging about 10 rebounds per game for us. Best of all, he's so unselfish. If I could shoot the ball like him, you couldn't stop me from putting up 11 to 12 shots by halftime. At the end of a game where Tomas had maybe nine points, I would ask him why he didn't try to shoot more, and he would say, 'But we won, Coach.' It was refreshing to see an athlete so unselfish."
Holderness was 20-10 on the year, which may look like a fair but yawner of a season. However, they are in the second smallest division of prep schools in New England, Class C, and often played "up" against bigger powers in Class A and Class B. They took their lumps in some of those games, but come the end of the season, they hoisted a Class C New England Championship.
Balcetis benefited from the high level of competition that Gallagher scheduled this year, facing players who constantly challenged him on both ends of the floor. The Holderness head coach says that his team faced 50 different Division I-bound athletes during the course of their rigorous season.
"We had to play Tomas out of position, so it's hard to get a good read on his abilities. But he kept surprising us as we challenged him. He held Alfred Aboya, who is going to UCLA next year, to 11 points. And that's a 6'8" kid," Gallagher details. "I'm not sure yet that Tomas is a Pac-10 level athlete - that's not my job to figure out - but at whatever level you want to define, he can shoot it."
"As the year went on, his athleticism definitely improved," the coach continues. "He ran the floor better and would dunk the ball with two hands in transition."
The job for college coaches in evaluating Balcetis' athleticism has been made more difficult by the 2006 wing's non-participation in travel team competition during the just-concluded April evaluation period. Remember that Holderness requires a student like Balcetis to round his extracurricular competitions, and not maintain a basketball-only focus through the year. The junior played soccer in the fall, hoops in the winter and is currently doing theatre in the spring. Balcetis in fact has the lead role in the school's production of Grease, as Danny Zuko.
"We have Saturday classes here at Holderness, and I'm pretty sure that's something he's just not interested in doing," Gallagher says of Balcetis' skipping the spring AAU season. "Plus, he would miss too many practices for Grease."
With the Lithuanian on U.S. soil for less than a year, and no showings on the AAU circuit yet this spring, Balcetis holds quite a bit of mystery and intrigue. We hope the summer will provide helpful clues, though his plans remain up in the air. Gallagher says that the student-athlete is eyeballing a summer school enrichment program and also wants to go back to Lithuania for some time. Basketball may be tough to squeeze into that ambitious schedule, though one possible plan could devote one month each to the three exclusive activities.
For these reasons, you can understand why Tomas Balcetis has flown under the recruiting radar thus far this year. The student-athlete has such an incredible stroke that he deserves to be recruited at a high level, but the schools who could value his skills mostly do not offer what he values.
For example, Balcetis first introduced himself to college recruiters last September when he attended an open gym at nearby Brewster Academy with teammates and a host of the best players in New England. Despite only the thinnest understanding of the American style of play, plus finding himself in an exceedingly selfish environment where players wanted to keep the ball to impress coaches in attendance, the wing drained 7-of-9 three-pointers in an abbreviated game with a running clock.
"That opened up some eyes," Gallagher remarks.
Richmond was in the stands and offered Balcetis soon thereafter, on the back of less than half an hour of observation - before he tipped off his first high school game in the States.
"Tomas isn't really interested in Richmond, though. He is only interested in the Ivies," Gallagher reveals. "He came here to get an Ivy League education, or to go to his dream school, Stanford."
Those words are music to the ears of a few college coaches, and undoubtedly disappointing to many others. The Cardinal were nearly left out of that loop, however, if not perhaps for a serendipitous experience last Thanksgiving, when Balcetis spent the holiday with a classmate's family in Andover (Mass.). It was during that break that Balcetis was introduced to a college basketball video game, which he played with his friend intensely that holiday weekend. It was through that game that the Lithuanian discovered a team out West who was among college basketball's elite.
"Stanford is a pretty good basketball team," he reported to Gallagher after the Thanksgiving break. "And they have pretty good academics, right?"
"They have great academics," the coach replied.
Balcetis proceeded to research Stanford with his Web browser at that point, and the student-athlete moved the Cardinal to the top of his list.
Gallagher has been bombarded by every Ivy League school in pursuit of the 2006 standout, so in March he asked Balcetis to prioritize those schools during his spring break. The Lithuanian transplant talked with his mother and reported back with a tiered listing for the Ivies.
"He likes Columbia, Penn, Yale and Princeton," Gallagher shares. "And of course Stanford is a no-brainer above that top tier."
While those Ivy League suitors have had an easy time evaluating and recruiting the New England student-athlete, Stanford did not travel to New Hampshire during Balcetis' high school season in the winter, while the Cardinal played their Pac-10 schedule back on the West Coast. The first evaluation for the Cardinal of the Lithuanian rifleman came just in the last couple weeks, when associate head coach Eric Reveno came to the Holderness School.
Balcetis had been so consumed by Grease rehearsals and school that he had not touched a basketball in two weeks, when Reveno visited. Gallagher reports, however, that his man hit his first eight three-pointers for the Cardinal coach.
"If coaches determine that he is athletic enough, Tomas can shoot at any level, however you want to define a shooter," the Holderness head coach declares. "He has a very high basketball IQ. And he's not afraid to push himself on the basketball court. With his size, Tomas can get his shot off over people."
At one point during the season, Balcetis drained 7-of-11 from three-pointer range in a Friday night game. Holderness played again the next day, with their opponent fully aware of Balcetis' shooting acumen and previous evening's performance. Despite that scouting, the lethal Lithuanian hit 8-of-12 three-point shooting in the Saturday game, en route to 29 points.
"He made three three's in the first half, and then he hit five in the second half - with the defense all over him," Gallagher exclaims.
With a handful of scholarships to give this year, Stanford has a high interest in this shooter. The academic résumé is encouraging thus far, with Balcetis scheduled to take the SAT for the first time this month, and the basketball side is certainly intriguing. There is probably a need for more evaluation during the summer in competitive situations, but for now the Cardinal coaches have put an admissions application in his hands. Balcetis is filling out the forms, writing his essays and rounding up teacher recommendations.
With the memory of Mississippi State's zone in Stanford's final game of the season still bloodied into our brains, it is easy to get excited about and make a case for Tomas Balcetis in this class. We will monitor his story in the coming months and keep you updated with his latest as his recruitment evolves.
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