In the 21st century, Arizona has had six freshmen average 12 points and seven rebounds per game while shooting at least 49 percent from the field. Only one of them didn’t immediately parlay that kind of production in their first year of college into a pro career.
That one guy is still on the Wildcat roster.
Azuolas Tubelis enters the 2021-22 season in a very unique position, having had a big freshman year at UA yet never giving much consideration to making it his lone season in Tucson. The NBA was definitely an option, as was the NCAA transfer portal following the firing of Sean Miller. Yet Tubelis never left.
Well, that’s not true. He did spend most of the summer in his native Lithuania, with a brief trip to Latvia to play in the FIBA U19 World Cup, before coming back to campus in August.
“He spent a lot of time at home, so he really didn’t get back here until early August, so we’re just kind of getting into our end of our second month with him,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. “He’s a big talent who has always been productive. 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.”
Tubelis, a 6-foot-11, 245-pound forward, averaged 12.2 points and 7.1 rebounds a year ago. He did that in just 26.7 minutes per game, posting three double-doubles and scoring a career-high 31 points in a home win over USC. He also made the game-winning basket at ASU on a night when he missed his first four shots but made his last four.
Tubelis is a lock to be Arizona’s starting power forward, paired in the frontcourt with center Christian Koloko. And if the Wildcats go small he’ll move to the five where he’ll be a matchup nightmare for opposing bigs. Actually, Lloyd expects him to terrorize the dreams of all opponents, regardless of position.
“I’ve been talking to him about dominating the paint, running the floor, rebounding with two hands,” Lloyd said. “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.”
Said Tubelis: “I just need to be more physical been last year. I know that I can. I just show that in in practices that I can be physical, and no one can stop me, so I just need to run the court and make smart decisions.”
Expect to see a lot of Tubelis in transition, either up ahead or trailing the play for an extra option. Lloyd plans to play fast, with constant movement, which means Tubelis can’t be stationary.
“I will try to find that space where I can score easy shots,” he said. “I think we’ll play fast, because we’ll try to play like Gonzaga played last year. Not much plays, just trying to set the screens and find open space.”
Beyond the scoring, though, Lloyd said what can really take Tubelis to the next level is crushing it in areas that the average college basketball fan might not notice.
“We’ve really been on him about that, and play with high effort at all times, and he’s really making great progress on it,” Lloyd said. “I mean a lot of it will be in areas you guys won’t see, whether it’s just perimeter off-the-ball defense and stuff like that. And on-ball defense on the perimeter and moving his feet and things that might not be sexy, but really, really (are) important and impact winning. I can’t wait to see where he is after a couple more months because I think he’s getting ready to take off.”