Brazdeikis: 'We want to make noise at EuroBasket'
KAUNAS (Lithuania) - Ignas Brazdeikis finally got a chance to fulfil a life-long dream when he put on the famous 'Lietuva' jersey for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 European Qualifiers earlier this summer, but it has only further whetted his appetite ahead of FIBA EuroBasket 2022.
"I've always dreamed about playing for Lithuania at this stage. Feels great to finally be here," says the 23-year-old swingman who grew up on the other side of the world.
This summer represents a new beginning for the player. One year after getting his Lithuanian citizenship restored, the Kaunas native is playing for his homeland.
"I FEEL LIKE WE MIGHT BE ONE OF THE MORE UNDERRATED TEAMS. WE HAVE EVERY CAPABILITY - THE PLAYERS, THE TALENT LEVEL AND THE COACHES - TO WIN IT ALL."
He wouldn't have had it any other way.
His family emigrated and ultimately settled in Canada, Brazdeikis takes pride in being Lithuanian. As the forward points out, most of his relatives still live in Lithuania. Same goes for his immediate family which he calls "completely Lithuanian".
"Even though I grew up and played basketball in Canada, I've always wanted to play for Lithuania," the 23-year-old told FIBA.basketball. "Even growing up I would watch the national team play all the time. My family and friends gathered around and we would watch all the big events."
Lithuania is one of the teams what will make up the tough EuroBasket field in Cologne's Group B. The nation of less than three million hasn't tasted significant success since the runner-up finish in EuroBasket 2015.
Brazdeikis is certain that his team has the potential to bring home the eighth EuroBasket medal in Lithuania's basketball history.
"We want to make a big noise in this EuroBasket. I feel like we might be one of the more underrated teams. We have every capability - the players, the talent level and the coaches - to win it all."
You can't fault him for not knowing his history either. Last summer the 11,562 in attendance left Zalgirio Arena stunned as Lithuania lost to Slovenia in the Final of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Kaunas behind a miraculous triple double from Luka Doncic.
They're set to meet that same Slovenian team on September 1 in EuroBasket.
"I'm very excited to play against Slovenia. It's kind of gonna be my first time playing on a big stage in terms of FIBA competitions. I've never shied away from such games. We're all gonna be ready for this game. Losing to them last time definitely left a bitter taste."
Then there's also the fact that this year's EuroBasket features a who's who of European basketball stars. Opponents of Lithuania will have their work cut out for them when they enter the paint against Domantas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas or the Twin Towers, as Brazdeikis calls them.
The big names on other teams only add excitement for the EuroBasket rookie. "It's going to make it that much more fun. We're all very excited to compete and go at the best. That's what we want."
Don't consider him a stranger to high-level FIBA competitions, though.
Brazdeikis did his part for Canada in the FIBA U17 World Championship 2016 as he averaged 14.7 points per game for the fifth-placed team.
He arrived in Lithuania back in June when the team was preparing to close out its participation in Group F of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 Qualifiers.
The former Michigan Wolverine, who spent the first three seasons of his professional career between the NBA and the G-League, admits that there is a transition to make when coming over from North America to Europe.
"The pace of the game is a little bit different. Based on what I have seen, it's very strategic and defensive-minded. Everybody plays hard defensively. You have to come prepared for every single game," says Brazdeikis.
Yet it doesn't seem like the forward has been bothered by said pace. Brazdeikis averaged 14.5 points per game as Lithuania's leading scorer in games against Bulgaria and Czech Republic. Moreover, he had, perhaps, the most important two points at Bulgaria as he drove to the rim for a dunk that put Lithuania up by 2 with 1:30 remaining in the fourth quarter.
"Winning that first game against Bulgaria was a special moment for me. I loved every single second of that. It was an intense game and a very intense environment," he said of his debut.
Brazdeikis admits that the two upcoming World Cup Qualifiers games against Hungary and Montenegro will help set the tone for EuroBasket. For him it will also be another part of a memorable summer.
"There's still a lot for me to figure out, but I'm taking it day by day and just enjoying every single moment."