Donatas Motiejunas’ career has endured more detours than Brooklyn’s Belt Parkway during construction. Similar to the Belt Parkway, Motiejunas’ physical condition has been questioned over the years.
Motiejunas was a key member of the Houston Rockets team that finished with a 56-26 record to win the Southwest Division before ultimately losing in the Western Conference Finals to the Golden State Warriors during the 2014-15 season. He averaged career highs in points (12), rebounds (5.9) and minutes (28.7) per game, shot career highs from the field (.504) and beyond the arc (.368) and started 62 of the 71 games he played in. After that 71st game, he missed the rest of the season and all of the playoffs.
Things began to unravel the following season. Motiejunas missed the first 20 games of the season, and 45 overall. He was nearly dealt to the Detroit Pistons during last season’s trade deadline until he failed a physical, which nullified the trade. He returned in late February and played every remaining regular season and playoff game, but struggled upon returning from the canceled trade in a reduced role. Motiejunas averaged 6.6 points and 3.4 rebounds in 15.6 minutes per game over the final 23 games of the regular season while shooting 41 percent from the field and 23 percent from beyond the arc. Motiejunas played better in the playoffs averaging 8.8 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.7 minutes per game while shooting 43 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc. Motiejunas then entered restricted free agency where he remained in limbo for months.
“Honestly, you can say it was business stuff, but, from my side, I’m a basketball player, I just want to play,” Motiejunas told Basketball Insiders. “Being involved in that business situation, it was one of the worst experiences of my life that I’ve had. I would say, from any basketball player, we work every day, we put our sweat, we put our tears, we put our blood on the floor, try to help and make teams better, so when someone acts with you like this, it’s just wrong.”
As a restricted free agent, Motiejunas signed a four-year, $37 million offer sheet with the Brooklyn Nets. The Houston Rockets matched the offer sheet, contingent upon Motiejunas passing a physical. Motiejunas didn’t report for the physical, which gave Houston the option to withdraw its right of first refusal and scrap the deal. The Rockets and Motiejunas attempted to negotiate a new deal but failed to come to terms and the team decided to go in a different direction. The Rockets then renounced his rights, which made him an unrestricted free agent. By rule, however, Motiejunas couldn’t sign a new deal with Brooklyn for one year.
After losing $37 million, what went through Motiejunas’ mind?
“The team lost an asset,” Motiejunas told Basketball Insiders. “I lost $37, 38 million, so both sides lost in this situation. No one won in this situation actually. I know, as soon as I step on the floor, the people are going to see that I’m the same guy that I was last year when I was playing. For me, I’m not going to lose anything. After this year, someone else is going to pick me up. I’m not worried about that. I know how to play basketball. I know how to make every and each team better. I adjust to the situation depending on what coach asks me to do, so I’m not worried about that. It was just a ridiculous situation, the resolution was taking too long, and it was affecting me as a player, and it was affecting me personally. Instead of being a business decision it was like more of a personal decision.”
Motiejunas’ market thinned with Houston out of the picture, and Brooklyn’s $37 million offer was no longer on the table, which forced him to sign a one-year deal with the New Orleans Pelicans.
“The hardest part, probably, was that unknown,” Motiejunas told Basketball Insiders. “Where am I going to go? Where am I going to be? What’s going to happen? I keep on talking with people. I was talking with the people in the [National Basketball Players Association]. I was talking with people from the NBA. I was talking with people from the teams and they keep on telling me, ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.’ At one point I was like, ‘Tomorrow has already been two weeks. I want to play. I’m hungry.’ I’m sitting, watching these games, and I’m like, ‘I can help each of these teams to be better.’ It was a really tough moment for me, probably all of 2016.”
Motiejunas made his return to the court on January 7th with the Pelicans. Motiejunas scored 11 points, grabbed five rebounds, dished out four assists and one steal in 20 minutes.
“For me it means everything,” Motiejunas told Basketball Insiders. “I was working five months by myself in Vancouver with my coaches and trainers. Every day it was getting longer and longer, five hours a day working out by yourself is pretty tough. So, for me to get on the floor and do what I love to do and play with a team that wants me on their team, it was just a phenomenal feeling. I’m really happy. I’m going to give all my work, all my energy to this team and try to help them win as many games as possible.”
Looking ahead, Motiejunas hopes to propel the Pelicans into the playoffs as a role player and form a dynamic tandem with Anthony Davis in the frontcourt.
“My goal is to help Anthony Davis to be better, my goal is to help the other players play the right way, help them to find a role,” Motiejunas told Basketball Insiders. “I’m the player who’s going to, if you’re wide open on the floor, I’m going to pass you the ball. That’s who I am. I’m unselfish. I try to make the team better, so I think I’m going to fit them perfectly. I will connect Anthony Davis with our teammates and, from my vision, I’m here to help them to play more as a unit, that’s my goal. We have a lot of great shooters here who can take open shots. I think they were missing the person who could deliver the ball to them and who can space when Anthony Davis is playing in the post or on the elbow. That’s who I am. That’s who I’m going to try to be.”
Despite all the money Motiejunas lost, the situation may work out for him in the end. This summer Motiejunas will be an unrestricted free agent at age 26, just as the salary cap spikes above $100 million. He may even make that four-year, $37 million restricted free agency offer look like a bargain depending on his performance through the rest of the season.
At 26, what has Motiejunas thought of his career to this point?
“It’s a big mess,” Motiejunas told Basketball Insiders candidly. “Some of the situations, so far it’s a pretty big mess, but hopefully everything is going to settle down right now and, like I said, I work my butt off every single day of my career. I’m going to keep on doing that step by step. I’m not trying to jump over the hurdles or nothing like that. I’m trying to go step by step, trying to become a better player, trying to become a better teammate. I think that’s the most important thing; never look back, look forward.”
After failing to land with the Pistons via trade and the Nets in restricted free agency, Motiejunas is looking forward as he mentioned. Motiejunas hopes the third time will be the charm with the Pelicans and lead to a brighter and more lucrative future ahead.
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