|By every conceivable metric, Zalgiris Kaunas enjoyed the best month of any team in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague; the Lithuanian champs were the only squad with a perfect record in December and those wins came at the expense of four national champions and three teams in the top five in the standings. Big man Paulius Jankunas is more than just the club’s most productive player this season – and over the previous decade, he is also the team’s longest-tenured player and its captain. As the unquestioned leader – on and off the court – of the best team in the league over the past month, Jankunas is Euroleague Basketball’s choice as the MVP for December. As the team won close games – Zalgiris’s average margin of victory during its 5-0 run was 5 points – Jankunas did not deliver the spectacular as much as he offered consistency, which proved to be the cornerstone of a memorable month in Kaunas. Whether it was his cool midrange jumpers, timely rebounds or words of advice or encouragement to teammates, the veteran’s impact was felt across the continent and made him a natural choice as MVP of the month for the first time in his distinguished career.
The MVP of the Month honor is now in its 14th season. Although statistics and performance index ratings are taken into consideration for the award, they alone do not determine who is honored. The winner is named by Euroleague Basketball based on his and his team’s performance. The award for December spanned the five regular season games that all teams played between Rounds 11 and 15.
Jankunas averaged 14.4 points and 6.2 rebounds for a 16.0 average performance index rating in December, which were all team highs. He scored in double figures in each game and made 54.4% of his two-point shots and 80.7% of his free throws. This is part of what is shaping up to be one of the best seasons in the 33-year old’s career; Jankunas’s scoring average of 13.2 points per game this season is on pace to be the second-best in his 15 EuroLeague seasons as is his average index rating of 15.9. Jankunas, who has played all but one of his professional seasons for Zalgiris, is ranked third on the all-time rebounding charts (1,592) and sixth in scoring (2,663 points). He becomes the second Zalgiris player to win the award, coming exactly one decade after Marcus Brown was named December 2007 MVP. Jankunas is the oldest player to win the monthly MVP since Rasho Nesterovic claimed the February 2011 award with Olympiacos Piraeus at age 34.
Zalgiris came into December having lost two of its previous three games, with a 5-5 record and squarely in the middle of the standings. Its first opponent for the month was Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens with November MVP Nick Calathes, who had led the team to five straight victories. And the Greens took a double-digit lead in the first quarter. But Jankunas was at the heart of the game-winning push with 6 points and 2 boards in the third quarter as Zalgiris turned a 2-point deficit into a 17-point advantage. He finished with a team-high 17 points in just 20 minutes. A week later came a trip to Istanbul to face the defending champs, Fenerbahce Dogus. In a game that went down to the wire, Jankunas tied the game with a jumper inside the final minute and sank a pair of go-ahead free throws with 40 seconds left as Zalgiris held on for the win. He posted 15 points and 6 boards in the win. Brose Bamberg came to Kaunas in Round 13 and again Jankunas came through late to lift his team; with his team up 1 with three and a half minutes to go, Jankunas converted a basket-plus-foul followed by a three-pointer to put the game on ice. Defense was the story of Zalgiris’s 63-71 road victory over Valencia Basket in Round 14 and Jankunas more than did his part with 11 and 11 rebounds. In a clash against Olympiacos Piraeus and its mighty defense to close 2017, Zalgiris went into the fourth quarter down 5, but Jankunas sank a pair of jumpers to ignite the offense and his team went on to outscore the Reds 26-15 in the last 10 minutes to complete a perfect December. The victory lifted the team into a tie for third place at 10-5 and turned the team from dark horse favorite into a legitimate contender. It also marked Zalgiris’s first five-game winning streak since it opened the 2012-13 season 5-0. And with Jankunas playing at such a high level, Zalgiris is looking to continue making history this season.