While the Knicks are battling through their toughest stretch of the season, their draft stash Rokas Jokubaitis is playing his best ball yet.
Amidst the trade rumors, playoff hopes, and upcoming NBA draft, you may have forgotten about the 2021 draft pick that the Knicks have stashed away in Barcelona. Rokas Jokubaitis was the 34th pick of the draft just two years ago, and while the addition of Jalen Brunson shored up the backcourt quite a bit this off-season, there are still plenty of variables still to play. Derrick Rose seems like a lock to be traded, Deuce McBride is inconsistently receiving minutes and inconsistent in his offense as he continues to develop, while the conversation around Immanuel Quickley seems to toggle between trade talk and contract extension incessantly.
Whatever your stance may be on the carousel of guards employed during the Leon Rose tenure, everybody should be rooting for Jokubaitis to come over and at least help off the bench for the Knickerbockers.
It is nearly impossible to evaluate what the Lithuanian Lefty will look like in the NBA context given such little time that we have seen him since draft night. The Barcelona guard only logged 29 minutes in the three Summer League games that he played immediately after being selected – after winning the Euroleague Rising Star award in the 2021-2022 season, the 22-year-old guard had surgery to prepare for the Eurobasket tournament, causing him to miss the Las Vegas Summer League.
While unfortunately, we are unable to say when the 22-year-old Barca product will be coming over, we can look at two different things while we wait. First and foremost: we can read the tea leaves of what both the Knicks and Jokubaitis are saying about his potential journey to the NBA. Secondly: we can look at what he is doing overseas and how that projects to his development into an NBA player. Lucky for us, there was an interview with Tom Thibodeau recently with Mundo Deportivo to discuss Rokas’ future with the franchise.
When Thibodeau was asked about the Knicks’ future plans with the Lithuanian Lefty he has this to say: “It would be more a question for the ‘front office’ (the management), but we liked it a lot when he played the Summer League. I hope he has a good season and then in the summer, we’ll see. But yes, I would like to see him.”
While it is truly not Thibs’ place to speak on the roster, it is a positive comment to see that he would like to “see him” as implies a more imminent transfer than some anticipated for Jokubaitis. As it happens with any “draft and stash” prospects, the longer it is that a player remains overseas, the less likely it is that they find their way to the association. Two years into his “tenure” with the Knicks, it seems that it is about time to start having these conversations. His current contract with Barcelona ends in 2025 but he has an “exit clause” in his contract to leave and join the NBA.
In an interview with Basket News after last season, Jokubaitis had this to say: “I’ll probably stay in Barcelona for another year, so I’ll try to impress them (the Knicks) even more”, so it does appear as of the 2021 draft pick is on the same page in regards to when the Lithuanian guard will be coming over.
Rokas actually participating in the Summer League and taking that opportunity in Vegas to prove himself would be a great start. While he did not get many chances in his first stint with the summer Knicks, he would hopefully play a more significant part now coming back as a 22-year-old with two more years of high-level professional experience.
So: let’s take a look at Lithuania’s first-ever Euro League Rising Star and what he has been doing in his time for Barcelona.
He has been inconsistent throughout this year and his efficiency numbers were down as well as his shooting numbers. His field goal percentage has dropped from 53% down to 43% and his three-point percentage has similarly subsided dropping from 48% down to a still impressive 41%.
Rokas averaged just 6.1 points a game in his combined EuroLeague and Spanish La Liga ACB play but is playing well as of late. He has scored in double digits in the last five games he has played at least 20 minutes in and is averaging over 6 assists in those games. He is also shooting 7-13 from deep over those games which checks out for the lefty who has shot 44% from three between both leagues since the Knicks took him 34th overall in 2021.
That shooting consistency is there, although a higher volume would prove a more confident translation to the NBA context. He has only taken 1.5 3s per game in this time, but he is starting to get his shot off more consistently as of late, including shooting 3 of 5 from downtown in his double-double performance against Coosur Real Betis in La Liga ACB. The hot shooting that he has been showing recently will hopefully translate to more attempts as well.
The offensive versatility has always been a calling card of the Rokas Jokubaitis projection as a guard that can play with or without the ball. However, you can see the lefty growing more comfortable with the ball in his hands, handling the ball in P&R situations and making smart reads and high-level passes. His assist numbers are up, averaging nearly 5 assists a game in the Spanish league, but he is showing even more than that when given opportunities to be the primary ball handler.
The biggest improvement that Jokubaitis has shown this year is with the ball in his hands. His assist numbers are way up, as well as his usage rate, and with that, you may expect an increase in turnovers, but the Lithuanian guard has nearly cut his turnovers in half from his performance last year in the Euroleague. The Euroleague is the second-best competition in the world and with that comes a higher level of opposition. While Jokubaitis’ numbers in the Euroleague are less impressive than his Spanish league output, he is still showing improvements in the important areas that translate to his projection at the next level.
He is running an efficient offense and taking care of the ball in a way that is beneficial for his team. He has a knack for finding open teammates and can make correct reads to get them easy baskets without forcing passes or creating turnovers. The smart style of play that Jokubaitis presents is an easy translation to the NBA. Versatile ball handlers that limit turnovers and can run an offense to slow down the game and create easy looks are always going to have a place in the Association. If Jokubaitis can continue to do that at the next level, he projects to be a solid bench guard in the near future.
Jokubaitis is playing some of his best basketball for Barca right now and has been consistently showing improvement as the opportunities have been coming to him. He is a big part of a Barcelona Basketball team that includes multiple former NBA players such as Alex Abrines, Nikola Mirotic, Jan Vesley, and Tomas Satoransky.
As Barcelona heads towards the playoffs in the Spring, they are going to need the best version of Rokas to be able to compete in the playoffs this year. Last year’s number-1 seed in the Euroleague fell short of the title finishing in third place in 2022. As it currently stands they are in fourth place right behind their rival Real Madrid along with Fenerbahce and Olympiacos.
We will keep watching, waiting, and commiserating about Rokas’ potential transition to the NBA, but don’t blink because it could be here before you know it. Jokubaitis has shown important development and is continuing to get an increased role in his club in Spain. While he has had struggles and inconsistencies, these are important developmental trends for the big picture and positive indicators for his future.
The improved free throw shooting and decreased turnovers are just two signs of maturation and efficiency for the combo guard. With his ball-handling ability, potential playmaking, and off-ball shot-making, Rokas should hopefully translate into a solid bench piece for the Knicks in the near future. There is no world where a 6’4 guard who can take care of the ball and shoot at an efficient clip cannot help an NBA team, so let’s just hope we get a chance to see him in blue and orange in the soon.