Mantas Zilys missed a crucial juncture of Naperville Central’s summer schedule, but basketball coach Pete Kramer gave Zilys his blessing.
And for good reason.
“Not having him hurt our chemistry,” Kramer said. “But what he ended up doing is going to help improve every part of his game, and that will benefit us.”
Zilys traveled to his parents’ native Lithuania to try out for the U-18 national team that participated in a qualifying tournament for the FIBA World Cup.
“All of this took place in three different cities in Lithuania,” Zilys said. “Siauliai, Kaunas and the capital of Vilnius.
“I had to travel there once I was invited to take part. The flight was nine hours and then another two-hour connection. I didn’t know how much time I was going to be there.
“It all depended on how I played.”
Basketball is not just the fastest growing sport in Lithuania. It has become an obsession — a source of tremendous national pride.
Led by eventual NBA standouts Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis, Lithuanian-born players made up the four best talents on the Soviet Union’s 1988 national team that captured the Olympic gold medal.
After achieving its national independence in 1990, Lithuania won three consecutive Olympic bronze medals from 1992 to 2000.
Being one of the 16 players invited for the junior national team tryouts is a significant achievement for Zilys.
“Twelve players ended up making the final team,” he said. “And I ended up getting cut just before the start of the World Cup. During the time I was there, I thought I played my game.
“I wish I could have played more point guard and showed more confidence. I shot the ball very well.”
He had to adjust on the run and assimilate into the team-first framework.
“In Lithuania, the game is much more about team basketball, with spacing and developing plays,” he said. “Passing the ball was the No. 1 choice.”
Despite coming up short in making the 12-player roster, Zilys gained many benefits from experience, with exposure to elite training and a heightened level of competition.
“We played a couple of practice games against Poland,” he said. “After that, we also had the chance to play against some professional players.”
It was an eye-opening time, allowing him to absorb the different playing styles and intensely physical play.
He also came of age.
“I think the hardest part for me was living there by myself,” Zilys said. “That taught me responsibility.
“As far as basketball, the best part was learning a different style of play. I also got physically stronger.”
A two-year starter for the Redhawks, Zilys made his name as a lights-out shooter who could score from anywhere on the floor.
As a junior last season, he averaged 17.5 points and 6.7 rebounds. He shot 40% on 3-pointers. He earned all conference and all area honors.
The 6-foot-3 Zilys combines excellent size for a shooting guard with instinct, terrific footwork and developing athleticism.
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“He played with Jonah Hinton, our point guard, the last two years and his game was different,” Kramer said. “He was much more of a catch and shoot player. He could do things off the dribble.
“Getting this kind of experience is definitely going to help every aspect of his game.”
Zilys had a strong spring playing AAU basketball in preparation for his departure to Lithuania.
His time with the national team underscored points of emphasis, accelerating his development.
“Looking back at it, my time there helped get me more athletic,” he said. “Taught me how to move more without the ball and get my handles tighter.
“The whole thing was amazing, different and unique.”
Patrick Z. McGavin is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.