Arizona’s Oak: Azuolas Tubelis
Tautvilas Tubelis wasn’t surprised by how his twin brother Azuolas performed in his first year at Arizona last season: the strong moves, unflappable demeanor and keen basketball skills.
“Because I’ve seen it all my life,” said Tautvilas, who as a twin and a teammate at the University of Arizona has been with him since, well, birth. “He’s been good for a long time.”
Tubelis eventually averaged 12.2 points and 7.1 rebounds, appearing in all 26 games while starting the final 20 of the season.
Few knew how good he was despite being one of the top European players in the 2020 recruiting class.
Azuolas Tubelis is a mystery no more. In fact, that mystery – who is this guy? – disappeared last year, a little bit before midyear when he helped lead Arizona to victories in what turned out to be Sean Miller’s final year.
“I kind of liked that,” Azuolas said of going under the radar. “I liked that no one really knew me. I just played my basketball. And then every media guy wanted to know more. They started posting in social media and all that.”
Of course, they wanted to know more about the Lithuanian from Vilnius who was, um, appropriately named Azuolas or “Oak” by his grandfather nearly 20 years ago. He was as strong and sturdy as a big oak last year.
“When my grandfather named me, my mother was like … OK,” he said, with a smile. She had no choice, but it has turned out to be both prophetic and appropriate.
It fits. He’s big (6-foot-11) and sturdy (245 pounds) and can be an unmovable force. And his growth in the game has so much potential.
He just must realize it. Work on it. And know it will all make him better.
“I’ve been talking to him about dominating the paint, running the floor, rebounding with two hands,” said new UA coach Tommy Lloyd, just months removed from being a longtime assistant with Gonzaga. “What I keep saying is, ‘you’re talented, you’re good, you’re productive. Now how do you become a beast, where there’s just, there’s no gimmicks, it’s just toe-to-toe combat and you’re just better than the other guy and kicking butt.’ Those are the conversations I’ve been having with him.”
Of course, there's still plenty of adjusting to be made. He's still a Euro adapting to the college game, where athleticism is king and fundamentals seemingly secondary.
Yet, he can do all that - show athleticism with his ability to run the court and with his ability to mix it up with small forwards, power forwards and big men.
“I like to run and shoot, too,” he said. “That’s why I came here. I think I did some smart moves last year, and everyone was surprised. But I said I'm from Europe, I know those things. Yeah, I can use those European things here, too. Because, for example, the shots that they are giving me I can make.”
He fits in just fine, although it did take him a handful of games to get going … or at least impress Miller enough to get him in the starting lineup. Once he started, he never did not start. He was that important, becoming one of Arizona’s two to three threats behind Ben Mathurin and the now-departed James Akinjo.
“The first five, six games, I played like seven to 10 minutes,” he said. “After the Washington State game, I started, and I was surprised. Like, why coach? Am I that good? But, yeah, I just showed how I can play and how good I can be. I think I just need to … be more physical, make good decisions offensively and defensively. I will help my team as best as I can.”
And he did. By the time the end of the season came, Azuolas was named to the Pac-12 Conference All-Freshman team and an honorable mention All-Pac-12 member.
“I thought Tubelis is one of those guys -- he and Warith Alatishe from Oregon State were probably the most improved players last year,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “From the beginning of the season to the end of the season, I thought he really came into his own as the season progressed. He's a terrific player.”
To begin the 2021-22 season, Tubelis was named a preseason Pac-12 second-team member and is one of 20 players on the preseason watch list for the Karl Malone Award, which is given to the top power forward in the country.
But, um, is he really a power forward? Depends.
“Yeah, he's a matchup (problem) because he can shoot the ball and he's strong, he's athletic,” Boyle said. “He's very skilled. And I think sometimes those players that didn't grow up in America, it takes them a while to adjust to the game, it's a different game. FIBA Basketball and NCAA college basketball are two different games.”
But he’s learning – quickly. He enjoyed the early part of last season (despite coming off the bench early) because the team ran more than later in the season. But that’s what Miller does to teams. Lets them run – to a certain degree – then pulls them back as the season goes on.
“I didn’t know much of the style,” he said having only been to the States twice before coming to Arizona. “But in college basketball you run more. You jump more. It’s why I came here. I thought I’d love the style. The first five games I wasn’t sure. Maybe I was scared, and I just played bad. Then came that Washington State game.”
He went 5 for 11, finishing with 12 points and nine rebounds. He played a then-season-high 32 minutes. Arizona won in double overtime.
“Coach Miller saw that I can play a lot of minutes and the next game I started,” he said. “I played more so I really started to love the style. And I was getting more into the style, but still, I don't think that last year, I showed everything, because it still may have been a little because maybe I needed to take more shots. Of course, I don’t need to rush (the shots). I’ll do like Europeans do. They’re patient. They look for their teammates to score, too.”
Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said Tubelis’ basketball IQ is very apparent, that “he has great instinct and understands the game … great hands, great foot work. Sean did a really good job of landing him.
“You get the feeling that his team likes playing with him.”
Indeed, and he’s only going to get better.
“I’ve worked on my weaknesses,” he said. “And I'm still working. So, I think I will shoot even more threes; be more aggressive.”
Lloyd likes hearing that, although the shooting from the perimeter part took him aback. Here’s this 6-foot-11 stretch-four talking about shooting from beyond the 3-point line. That from a player who hit just 13 of 43 threes last year.
“He’s a big talent who has always been productive,” Lloyd said. “Now it’s just trying to help him become dominant, and kind of assert his physical will. He’s really talented, and he’s really productive. I just think for him to take the next steps as a player, he’s got to increase his physicality, he’s got to increase his concentration on defense. I honestly haven’t been talking about shooting at all.”
Well, he’s doing it – and a lot. Every day before practice, Tubelis is taking threes from five different positions, rotating around the half-moon line.
“I need to hit 10 out of 13 every time,” he said. “If I miss four threes I start again. I do it before and after practice. It’s going good. I can’t believe I can make those shots.”
He may sound surprised, but in reality, he’s likely not, given that back-to-the-basket wasn’t how he used to play.
“When I was younger, I played on perimeter,” he said. “(But) when I came here (at Arizona), I was tall and strong on the team (so) they wanted to play me inside and it was kinda new for me. But I think I did a good job. So, now I can player either, I just want to play both for sure. If I see that my opponent is smaller, or is not that strong like me, I'm going to post him. If I see a guy taller, I'm trying to score with my speed.”
Naturally, the conversation – and the comparison – of former Lloyd protégé Domantas Sabonis comes around. Sabonis is an American-born Lithuania, who thrived at Gonzaga and is now in his sixth NBA season.
“Yeah, the coaches have shown him to me and how he played,” he said. “They show me what I need to do better.”
The new style of play – now behind Lloyd – may benefit Tubelis more than anyone, given his versatility. Lloyd is bringing Gonzaga’s run-and-stun offense to Arizona, bringing back the days of Lute Olson when running was the norm.
His teammates believe it. From Christian Koloko, who raved about Tubelis’ improvement, to Oumar Ballo, who is one of the newer teammates having transferred in from Gonzaga.
“You saw how good he is in the Red-Blue game,” Ballo said, referring to Arizona’s annual intrasquad scrimmage. “He’s a great player. He’s a tough player. He’s a true scorer who will be there for his teammates. He’ll be a scorer night in and night out.”
Tautvilas has known it all along. It’s also a reason why Tubelis loves having his brother on the team and by his side constantly.
“Without my brother, I think I wouldn't be in that place where I am now,” he said, “because he knows me the best. And he feels me when I am struggling. He knows me when I just don't want to play basketball. So, he talks to me, and I'm really thankful that he's here, helping me.”
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