"What we really are seeing is, in my opinion, the most impactful Next Star that we’ve seen."

7 Jan
Tom Hersz for

The NBL’s Next Stars program is flying high this season. With a record eight players in NBL24 and a potential number one overall draft pick, there has never been this much excitement about what the program has become and what it is producing.

In the latest ESPN Top 100 Rankings of 2024 Draft Prospects from Jonathan Givony, all seven draft eligible Next Stars (Rocco Zikarsky will be eligible in 2025) are ranked inside the top 65. 

But one of those prospects garnered less of the headlines early in the season and had flown a little under the radar – until recently.

Lithuanian prospect, Mantas Rubstavicius of the New Zealand Breakers, who missed five of their first ten regular season games, has arguably been the most impactful Next Star of the NBL24 class in recent weeks. And Mody Maor isn’t the least bit surprised.

For Maor, now in his second year as the Breakers’ Head Coach and fifth season in the NBL, Rubstavicius is the fourth Next Star he’s worked with. R.J. Hampton and Ousmane Dieng were both first round picks in their respective NBA Draft classes, while Rayan Rupert was taken with the 43rd pick in last year’s draft, so the Breakers have had plenty of success with Next Stars and continue to find it appealing.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sarr sits above the pack ?<br><br>ESPN’s latest mock draft includes a bunch of rising Next Stars ?<br><br>Read more: <a href=""></a> <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; NBL (@NBL) <a href="">January 3, 2024</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

“The Breakers, under this ownership, will always have a Next Star and there’s a level of commitment from the organisation top to bottom, to making this work,” Maor told NBL Media on Thursday.

“From a coaching standpoint, you get the privilege to coach and mould and help develop very talented players in a very early stage in their career. And, one of the reasons, at least for me, [that] you get into coaching is to get a chance to work with guys like this, and Mantas is not an exception to the rule from that regard.”

When searching for a Next Star for this season, the Breakers factored in the kind of local players they had and the imports they had lined up, so certainly prioritised a wing player.

Dieng and Rupert had both played a defensive minded role mostly as wings, but the preferred position is only one consideration. Maor is looking for other intangibles and characteristics just as much as position.

“For me, with my experience with Next Stars, the first thing I’m looking for is someone who loves basketball and not the idea of being a basketball player. Those are two very different things,” Maor explained.

“Loving the attention, the shoe deals, the hype, whatever that is, is not the same as loving the game. And this is true for every player that I sign, but it’s even more important when you sign a Next Star, because the amount of distraction that comes with this. 

“So for me, the number one factor is to find guys that love the game and want to be coached. There’s a big difference between a player who comes to the Next Stars program to prove how good he is, or a player who comes to the Next Stars program in order to be as good as he can be. Those are separate things and Mantas was ten out of ten in both those areas. 

“The last thing is that we’re looking for people that have – there’s what to develop there and, although Mantas is an older Next Star from an age and experience standpoint, which obviously helps him a little bit, he’s very raw.”

Maor calls Rubstavicius a late bloomer. He grew late and may still be growing. He still doesn’t shave and he’s got pimples according to Maor, but that means that there is still a lot to mould with him.

Rubstavicius is on the older side for a Next Star. He’ll turn 22 in May before the NBA Draft, but having played in Lithuania’s top professional league and getting a taste of Eurocup action last year, he has more experience at senior levels than most other Next Stars, which has certainly accelerated his ability to get comfortable in the NBL and contribute.

“Part of the adjustment for these high school kids, whether they’re from the States, or like Rayan and Ousmane who came from INSEP, is that they’re not used to playing versus adults and there’s a difference there with the physicality, the strength, the speed, the experience,” Maor noted.

“These talented youngsters, when they play against their age, they’re usually at a physical advantage and then they come and play in the NBL for the first time, it’s probably the first time that they’re at a physical disadvantage, and it takes time to accommodate for that. 

“Mantas went through that last year and had his first taste of what it’s like to be a kid playing amongst adults. That stage of the adjustment, it definitely helped him.”

Another thing that has helped Rubstavicius is his attitude towards being coached. The concept of a player being ‘coachable’ is often thrown around, but not always the reality. In Maor’s experience, there’s often a ‘honeymoon phase’ with a new player where they are very coachable and respond well.

Some players stay that way, while others begin to push back and that’s where their development can slow down or just not progress.

“There’s never been any kind of pushback with Mantas,” Maor said.

“He’s like a sponge, he wants to learn everything, he asks questions, he does everything he’s asked and more.

“But, there’s this saying about coachable players that I really like, 'you can’t win with players who don’t do what they’re told, but you can’t win with players who only do what they’re told'. It’s a Bill Belichick quote and I think it’s very accurate. 

“I think it describes who Mantas is to a tee, because when he plays, he doesn’t play like a coachable player. He plays aggressive, he plays the right way, he plays clean, he wants to learn etc. But, he’s in the moment and he’s on the attack and he does great things that are on the edges of our schemes and our rules, and it’s part of his strength and something that I really like about him.”

Another strength that’s emerged from Rubstavicius is his offensive efficiency. There’s often a stereotype of European wing players that they can all shoot, but Rubstavicius struggled his last couple of seasons.

He shot a combined 30 per cent from three and 42 per cent from the field overall across those two seasons in Lithuania and Eurocup. That’s now a completely different story with the Breakers.

Through his first 12 games, Rubstavicius is shooting 61 per cent from the field, 48 per cent from three and 83 per cent from the free-throw line. If he can improve that free-throw percentage, he could make a run at a 50/40/90 season, which has only been done once in the NBL, by Daniel Kickert in NBL17. 

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-media-max-width="560"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">AND. ???.<br><br>Didn&#39;t young Next Star Mantas Rubštavi?ius love that? ?<br><br>Catch the action live on ESPN via Kayo | Sky Sport in NZ <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; NBL (@NBL) <a href="">December 22, 2023</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

What’s more is that Rubstavicius' offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) is off the charts at 133.9. That currently ranks second in the league and well above Bryce Cotton – the leading scorer in the league – at 118.4.

While Maor may not have expected this kind of efficiency and proficiency, he believed Rubstavicius was a better shooter than what he showed the last couple of seasons, albeit with some work to be done there.

“When we signed Mantas, we knew that the biggest question mark is the shooting,” Maor admitted. 

“He had [an] incredible under-18 European Championship a few years ago with Lithuania. I think he was second in the tournament in scoring and he shot the ball incredibly well. But since then, he hasn’t shot it consistently and I didn’t know what we were going to get.

“In the off-season I went to see Mantas work out in the States. We met for the first time and spent a little time together in LA, and the first thing I looked at was the shot and it was clear that there’s a few things that needed to be tinkered with, mainly on the side of consistency. 

“Whatever the foundation of your shot is, you want it to be replicable; you want your shot to look the same every time and with Mantas that wasn’t the case.

“It was a very quick fix to finish the same way, hold your follow through the same way, catch the ball the same way and be consistent with that. Once he did that, the shot kind of took off and it was very clear for us after just a few weeks, that he was going to be a very good shooter.”

What may be more impressive though, is the way Rubstavicius attacks the game. As Maor said, he’s aggressive and plays on the edge of their schemes and rules. Rubstavicius is completely unafraid on the floor. 

Whether he’s spotting up or putting heat on the rim (22-30 or 73 per cent on 2pt FGs), he plays with confidence and never seems overawed by the moment. That’s not something you always see in a Next Star, as they can often be tentative or perhaps feeling like they’re on a short leash. 

Rubstavicius though, has the confidence to go out and play that way and Maor was keen to explain why that is.

“I think it’s a mix of a few things,” Maor began.

“At the core of this is that he plays without an agenda. He doesn’t care if he scores, if he doesn’t score, if he gets touches, if he doesn’t get touches. Nothing – except what the floor in front of him shows him – impacts any of his decisions. 

“And that’s not always the case with young guys. 'I need to prove I can shoot, I need to prove I can do this, I need to do this, I need to play pick and rolls'. This doesn’t exist with Mantas, he just hoops. 

“And he’s trying to create an advantage within the structure of what we do, for his teammates, all the time. If this means extra pass, [then] extra pass. If this means screen, then screen. If this means shoot, then shoot. So, I think playing without an agenda really helps him to play free and in the moment. 

“The other side of this is kind of what we talked about before. Him being coachable, but not robotic. He’s an absolute gamer. The second you’re playing, there’s a competitive edge there that he plays with, that puts him completely switched on and in the moment, and he responds to everything that happens on the court so fast. 

“And I think these are the two things that lead him to play a clean way, because his decisions are fast and without an agenda, and most of those turn out to be pretty good.”

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Mantas Rubštavi?ius’ last 4 games:<br><br>16 PTS - 4 REB - 57% FG - W<br>15 PTS - 1 STL - 56% FG - W<br>17 PTS - 2 AST - 67% FG - W<br>21 PTS - 8 REB - 63% FG - W<br><br>The <a href="">@NZBreakers</a> Next Star has been hooping ? <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; NBL Next Stars (@NBLNextStars) <a href="">January 3, 2024</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

One area of his game that has accelerated since he arrived in New Zealand is his defence. Rubstavicius came in, as most Next Stars do, needing to learn. As Maor explained, it’s not about a player’s athleticism or their will to defend, it’s about their knowledge and understanding of how to defend.

Learning how to defend different actions and how that can impact how you play your own man. Learning how to recover and defend the next action. How to place your body, where to place your hands. It’s something Maor has been through with each Next Star and Rubstavicius was no different.

“Really in the first week of practice, it was clear that for him to be on the court on a consistent basis for us, then there’s a lot areas that he needs to learn to cover,” Maor explained.

“And the assistant coaches – Mate Jakab specifically but not only, and a huge hats off to Tom Abercrombie – spent a lot of time with him getting reps in 1 on 0, 2 on 0, 3 on 0 and 5 on 0, just on how to defend these actions, and then how to defend them in isolation. 

“Mantas, like in everything has been an absolute sponge, super engaged, wanting to learn and this is something that didn’t stop during his injuries. So, this is something that we kind of hammered away [at] and you could see that before the Brisbane game, he turned the corner. There were a few moments in practice where he covered a few hard actions in succession, did it well, you could see that the level of understanding was there.”

Rubstavicius has really grown on that end of the floor, and with that newfound knowledge, as well as his physical tools and length, it’s meant that Maor has had no hesitation in giving him some of the toughest assignments the Breakers have faced over the last few rounds.

The Next Star has had primary assignments on some of the best scorers in the league including Milton Doyle, Jordon Crawford, Nathan Sobey and Denzel Valentine. And Maor has the confidence to trust him with those assignments because of the work he’s put in. 

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-media-max-width="560"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Mantas tracked that ???????? the way ?<br><br>Catch the action live on ESPN2 via Kayo | Sky Sport 2 in NZ ? <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; NBL (@NBL) <a href="">January 1, 2024</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

“You have a 6’7, 6’8 kid who can press smaller guards, use his length, impact at the rim and impact jumpshots, and it’s been fantastic,” Maor said.

“The similarities between him and Tom have been great. They have very similar body types and we task them with defending very similar players, so all the little wily tricks that you learn from a vet, he gets from Tom, all the time. 

“In workouts and in practices, I can really see how these things are translating. One of the stops in the Tassie game was a mirror image of how Tom would have defended the action.”

Clearly, being a sponge is having an impact on both ends of the floor and that’s been evident in how consistent he’s been of late. Rubstavicius has scored 15-plus points in four straight games, with only LaMelo Ball and Justinan Jessup having done that in Next Stars’ history.

Ball holds the record with six straight games, and while a record like that is not important in the scheme of things, it does show how impactful and consistent Rubstavicius has been. And Maor agrees. 

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Mantas Rubštavi?ius’ recent scoring run has him in good company ??<br><br>The <a href="">@NZBreakers</a> Next Star is averaging 17 points in his past four games ? <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; NBL Next Stars (@NBLNextStars) <a href="">January 4, 2024</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

Not concerned with his Next Star breaking records, he’s more interested in how Rubstavicius helps his team win, which is exactly what he’s done across those four games.

“Mantas can have an amazing game on the weekend versus Perth where he has four points, four rebounds and goes 0 for 12 from three. It doesn’t matter,” Maor explained.

“What we really are seeing is, in my opinion, the most impactful Next Star that we’ve seen. Vital to everything that we do, makes his teammates better, which is something that is super rare with a young guy. He makes our offence run faster, he makes us get through actions faster, he drives and kicks, he cuts and creates open passes, he keeps the ball alive on the glass, he competes. 

“So, yeah, he’s a very important player for us. He’s not starting because he’s a Next Star. He’s starting and playing these minutes, because we’re better when he’s on the court.”

Rubstavicius, who is averaging 17.3 points (8-17 3FGs, 60.6 FG%, 21-22 FTs), 3.8 rebounds and 2 assists over those last four games, still ranks just 55th on that ESPN Top 100, but has moved 38 on the Bleacher Report's latest list. There are several reasons for that, including being a less known name than others in his class, missing time early in the season so less impact right away, but most likely it is his age.

At 21 years, he’s older than most other draft prospects. Maor admits he’s no expert when it comes to what NBA team's value, but believes that Rubstavicius will be successful at that level because of everything that makes him such a joy to coach.

“If we clean out all parameters now and just describe a 6’7 guard-wing who’s a good athlete, thinks the game well and shoots, then you say: ‘Okay well this is a prototypical NBA Draft prospect’,” Maor explained. 

“Obviously Mantas is not 18. And something about the NBA Draft is a little bit more geared towards potential than it is towards how good actual players are. Now, I hope a guy like Jaime Jaquez who got drafted by the Heat and is having this kind of impact helps, and I hope people see him for what he can be ... [because] there is so much untapped potential here.

“And I can just tell you from my experience, I love coaching him. So, I hope a smart NBA team picks him up and I’m sure that the coaching staff there will be really happy that they did.”

Nobull 1920x250

For early access and updates, stay up to date with the hottest young basketball talent in the world. Sign up below and never miss a play or the next big moment.

By signing up you agree to the NBL Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.