When Gary Williams took his University of Maryland men's basketball team to Italy last summer, European fans kept asking Maryland players and coaches about a particular former player who has become a global superstar with a reputation for delivering championships.
Steve Francis? Juan Dixon?
No, the former Terrapin with the biggest reputation outside the United States is none other than Sarunas Jasikevicius, who played for Maryland from 1994 to 1998.
"He's a rock star in Europe," Williams said of the 6-foot-4 Lithuanian, who recently led Maccabi Tel Aviv to its second consecutive Euroleague title.
A solid but unspectacular player in College Park, the 29-year-old Jasikevicius has blossomed into perhaps Europe's most popular and respected player. His leadership and consistent ability to perform in the clutch has made NBA teams almost as high on "Saras," as he is known, as the rabid Maccabi fans, who have devoted Web sites, short films and "please stay" petitions to try to keep him.
As NBA teams evaluate their needs following last night's draft, however, it appears that Jasikevicius will finally make his debut in the NBA next season, more than seven years after departing College Park. He has emerged as one of the hottest -- if perhaps trickiest to pronounce -- free agent names of the summer. (It's pronounced yes-uh-KA-vi-shus).
Indiana, Portland, Boston, Dallas, Utah and Cleveland are interested in the point guard-shooting guard, according to league sources.
"He has a legitimate NBA game," Toronto Raptors General Manager Rob Babcock said last month during the Euroleague Final Four in Moscow.
Now that the league has a new labor deal in place, the player's agent, Doug Neustadt of McLean-based Octagon, can begin talking to teams on July 1 and hopes to strike a multiyear deal soon thereafter. For Jasikevicius, an NBA contract would mark the end to an amazing run as a superstar in Europe and the start of a new challenge as a rookie in the NBA.
"I know that my time is now," he said. "I'm very happy with what I've done, but the NBA has always been my dream."
Jasikevicius acknowledges that he wasn't good enough for the NBA when he left Maryland after averaging 12.4 points per game his senior year. He went home to Lithuania in 1998 and played for one season, then moved to Slovenia for another, all the while gaining confidence. In 2000, Jasikevicius joined Spanish power Barcelona and remained for three seasons, piling up championships and accolades, including one Euroleague and two Spanish League titles.
In Europe, Jasikevicius has played the point, unlike his career at Maryland, where he found himself on the wing and without much leadership responsibility.
"In general, being a pro and being able to concentrate totally on basketball really changed me," he said. "I'm a better ballhandler."
After helping Barcelona win the Euroleague crown in 2003, Jasikevicius led the Lithuanian national team to the European championship later that same summer. Maccabi won a bidding war for his services for the next two seasons -- both culminating in Euroleague championships.
On the court during the Euroleague Final Four in Moscow last month, Jasikevicius exuded confidence, determination and a bit of a temper. He constantly encouraged teammates, chided the referees and waved at the crowd to make noise.
"I don't know any other way to play the game," he said.
This season for Maccabi, Jasikevicius averaged about 15 points and six assists per game, but teammates and coaches say his true value lies in his ability to produce when it matters most.
"He's a tremendous open-court passer, a big-game player, and a big playmaker, the likes of which you don't find every day anywhere," said David Blatt, a former assistant coach with Maccabi who recruited Jasikevicius to Tel Aviv. "When the money is on the line, Saras is going to step up and make plays."
The persistent knock against Jasikevicius has been his defense and quickness, with some questioning whether he can guard on the perimeter. Given the opportunity to play against America's best, however, Jasikevicius has performed well.
During the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, he scored 27 points for the underdog Lithuanians and missed a desperation three-pointer at the buzzer to nearly cap an enormous upset over the Dream Team. In 2004 in Athens, Jasikevicius scored 28 points to help put the Americans away, 94-90, during a qualifying-round win.
He regards his success against Team USA with pride, but also a dose of realism, saying, "Those guys are good, but the Olympics is not their priority for sure."
As much as Jasikevicius has evolved since his days in College Park, so too has the NBA, which welcomes and recruits international players as never before. Fans need to look no further than the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs to see players such as Tony Parker from France and Manu Ginobili from Argentina as examples of international players making a dramatic impact.
"The Europeans are playing sound, fundamental basketball, and that's why we'll see more and more in the NBA," Portland Trail Blazers General Manger John Nash said.
For his part, Jasikevicius said he has no desire to come to the NBA if it means sitting on the bench. He wants to play for a team that has a chance to win and that will give him an opportunity to play meaningful minutes.
And the money has to be right. While salaries in Europe aren't reported as openly as in the United States, Jasikevicius is certainly one of Europe's top-paid players, which means at least a seven-figure salary, plus perks and benefits. If, for some reason, the right NBA deal isn't offered, he'll have plenty of suitors overseas.
"There was always the question of whether there was enough money to bring him over," said Neustadt, his agent. "But now, NBA teams are opening their eyes to the high-end professionals in Europe. No one has accomplished what Sarunas has accomplished."
Said Jasikevicius, "I would like to go in and compete against the best players in the world and see what I can do."