By Artau Pascual
After the U18 clubs season ended in Europe, some bad-kept secrets became big news. Last week, we learned two major moves from the International 2024 class to College Basketball: Egor Demin will play for BYU and Kasparas Jakucionis will do the same for Illinois. All the landscape changes we’ve seen over the last years have opened several new paths for European players, and now College Basketball is a legit alternative to professional European leagues from many standpoints.

Getting used to College Basketball takes time for incoming international players. The pace and execution of the game have some major differences with the leagues they come from, and the coaching approach and the hierarchy also work differently. However, for big-time prospects such as the above-mentioned ones, it all follows different steps. This applies to Kasparas Jakucionis: the FC Barcelona product, a 6’4, Lithuanian-born PG, recognized in Europe as one of the best Guards in the 2006-born generation, who has gone through a tremendous development path over the last two seasons. Jakucionis will be a part of Brad Underwood’s roster next season. At this point, and given his maturity and execution levels, he has built for himself an NBA prospect status, and it’s viable to imagine how he could have an immediate impact on the court for Illinois.

It’s easy to follow what Jakucionis has been up to in the last months. He was part of the Nike Hoops Summit event, he led FC Barcelona in the U18 National Championship in Spain, and he put up some insane assists numbers in the ANGT Berlin, where he also was awarded as a member of the All-tournament Five. Putting all these highlights aside, the most encouraging thing of these last two seasons has been his development as a basketball palyer. Jakucionis has shown not only a high ceiling, but also a safe floor that will allow him to make a solid contribution by just helping with his basics. The feel over the last few months has been watching a professional basketball player competing in the youth categories, and most of it has been because of two main and strongly related reasons: how he embraced a leading role and how his game is mostly about the next-play mentality.

The future Illinois freshman is a scoring-minded guard. He’s a high-volume outside shooter with self-creation upside who also always looks for driving lines to put rim pressure and make things happen. His lower body is strong and his contact absorption ability, as well as the acceleration, are strengths when he attacks the rim. He has already demonstrated he can score against set defenses in late shot-clock situations, and he’s also good when it’s time to push the pace or produce in transition, either in fastbreaks or using high screens. At this point, Jakucionis’ ball-handling game is more about functionality than creativity: he’s not the most creative guard, but he understands perfectly the amount of attention his game draws and has found ways to use it to put his teammates in a better place and realise which are his best self-scoring options. As a shooter, Jakucionis has brought his shooting mechanics to an optimal point. It’s not only about the results but also about how translatable to every level his shot looks. Jakucionis has the foundation to be a high-level shooter: deep range, great footwork preparation both off the dribble or in spot-up, and his consistency levels sit at the top of his European class. He’s been able to build kind of catch-and-shoot mechanics for his off-the-dribble shots, and that’s a big reason why his shooting looks sustainable and repeatable.

As a playmaker, Jakucionis’ traits are clear. Like we previously described, most of the things he gets to happen for his teammates come from his scoring gravity. Kasparas has developed himself as a heavy pick&roll player, and during the last tournaments, he has improved when it comes to being more unpredictable at feeding his teammates. Especially in Berlin, where he had to face physical defenses and different schemes, he did a solid task at feeding the roller and also kept finding open shooters as he’s been doing over the years. Jakucionis showed nice interaction with a couple of solid lob threats such as Sayon Keita and Mohamed Dabone, and he also used their presence to his benefit when he decided to attack instead of assisting. Some passes were off target or didn’t have the right timing, but that’s something fixable and teachable for players of that calibre, and the 2vs2 game is mostly about building on chemistry. At this point, Jakucionis’ next steps to improve as a passer are logical: he needs to keep working on entering the mid-range area slowing down the pace, which will also allow him to unleash his mid-range scoring game and will make him an offensive hub more difficult to read for the defenders, and he also has to improve his ball handling and overall courtmapping when he’s forced to go left, which has been a go-to strategy for the opponents. Both things are teachable and he has shown development in both areas in the recent outings, so there are plenty of reasons to feel good about him achieving the next levels.

Jakucionis will be able to adjust to multiple roles on the offensive end. Since he handled a high usage and volume of duties for FC Barcelona they didn't ask him to be an active threat off the ball, but anyway he has demonstrated he has solid relocating skills, and he does not slow down the game when he has to operate off the catch. Those two skills, added to the fact he has already been asked to share the court with other ball handlers and he has done well in this role, suggest he’s also ready to not be the first option when he’s not asked to be so. His game perception is solid and he has the attributes, activity and willingness to contribute at the margins of the game.  Another significant quality he has is how good he is at quickly identifying where he has the advantage against his matchup: he’s not a player with elite ball handlers, his solutions in tight spaces are still a work in progress and his burst and strength are remarkable but not yet difference makers; however, he is always able to figure out what he has to use and exploits it at a very fair level. 

On the defensive end, Jakucionis’ duties will change for next season. He will be asked to do more and will have to adjust to a more balanced physical level and a completely different level of execution. However, over the last few years, he has already stated two attributes that will be useful for him. The first one is he’s learned to play big, with high motor and intensity. This FC Barcelona team has sometimes been undersized, and Jakucionis has been a Swiss army knife to approach the circumstances because of how his body is built and how well he anticipates what happens. Especially in the final game in the U18 National Championship against Real Madrid, where he matched up against Sidi Gueye (6’11) for several minutes, he demonstrated he can reduce physical disadvantages by using the fundamentals of the game such as gaining the position and denying easy things for the opponents.

Another quality Jakucionis has, probably the one that made him such a reliable, high-floor player on both ends of the floor and has helped to project what his ceiling can be, is his motor. Regardless if he’s on or off the ball, he’s always paying attention to details. Rotations are usually on time, he fights for rebounds and loose balls, also, he’s usually involved in securing the defensive board. Jakucionis can do multiple straight efforts at a great level and knows how to produce easy points by making things happen on the defensive end. He has a knack for jumping passing lanes and plays at the right stance to avoid being beaten easily.

The area he will need to work on for the next level will be the on-ball defense. Jakucionis has done a good job against the guards he has faced over the last years when he’s had an on the ball assignment. In Spain he’s been matched up with tall ball handlers such as, to name a few, Egor Demin, Sergio de Larrea, Hugo González or Jan Vide in the last two years. The first two are not very bursty and build their game around skill and slowing down the pace, Hugo is still figuring out how to create from a standstill and Jan Vide, probably the most balanced one of all the ones we’ve mentioned was the one who looked the most to score for himself also. Especially against Hugo and Egor this season he’s been able to do a good job, but they have little to nothing to do compared to the type of explosive, smaller, challenging guards he will have to face at the college basketball level. Jakucionis still has some ways to go when opponents speed up the game and also when they try to get by his hip, as Nolan Traore did in the game between INSEP and FC Barcelona in Berlin, and that’s something he will have to get used to for the upcoming stages. ISO and screen navigating defense against the type of guards we just described will be a swing factor for him.