Azuolas Tubelis was considered the best European recruit in his class to go the college route, yet he has still managed to exceed Sean Miller’s expectations in his freshman season.
After averaging 17 points and 11.5 rebounds in Arizona’s road split against the Los Angeles schools—a performance that earned him Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors—the Lithuanian forward is now averaging 12.2 points and 6.8 rebounds on the season while shooting 50.7 percent from the field.
That puts him at fifth in the Pac-12 in rebounding, 11th in field goal percentage and 21st in scoring.
“I mean, that’s one heck of a freshman year, he’s done so many good things,” Miller said. “He’s better than I thought. Those statistics are nothing to gloss over. I mean, we’re at the end of the year right now. It’s one thing if I’m talking about his non-conference season or we’re in early January, but we’re at the very end here and he’s proven home, away, against almost every style that he’s a very good player and the best is yet to come.”
The numbers bear that out. Tubelis has improved every month. In six February games, he is averaging 15.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game while shooting 55 percent. The lefty is even sinking 36 percent of his 3s this season. Eleven of his 13 makes have come in January and February.
“If you look at him shooting the ball, especially from the corners right now, early this season that would have been an afterthought,” Miller said. “But right now he’s shooting it with an abundance of confidence, and one of the reasons is he’s put in a ton of work. He’s early to practice, he works at it during practice, after practice. I mean, these are guys that love the game and have really been consistent in terms of their work ethic and Azuolas is right there with all of them.”
Tubelis said the adjustment to college basketball has been “hard” but he’s grateful that Miller has given him so many opportunities to learn. Tubelis has started at power forward every game since Dec. 22 and is averaging 31.7 minutes in February and 26.4 for the season.
“I think one of the biggest adjustments was to be comfortable with a new coach,” Tubelis said. “Coach Miller has a different style of basketball than where I got back in Europe, so I needed to do some different things on offense and on defense, but I like it.”
Tubelis said college basketball is faster and more physical because “here we have young guys. They want to push, they want to fight and be tough.”
“In Europe, they won’t shoot in the fifth second (of the shot clock) or do unexpected shots,” he said. “In Europe, you just need to stay as long as you can, but here you need to receive that physicality and try harder.”
Miller has been impressed by Tubelis’ versatility. Offensively, he can shoot, run the floor, score inside and even the handle the ball a little bit. Defensively, Tubelis can battle with the bigs and, occasionally, cover smaller players on the perimeter—a perk of his athletic 6-foot-11 frame.
“When I played against the Mobley brothers, they’re kind of the same size and weight as me, so I tried to do my best and to be strong and to be tough,” Tubelis said. “And of course it’s more motivation to play against top five pick, so I think I did a really good job. But against for example (Jamie) Jaquez from UCLA or (Eugene) Omoruyi from Oregon, they’re smaller size and I need to improve on my defense against them. I need to play smarter, to not leave my feet.”
Tubelis is one of several promising young players set to return to Arizona next season—including fellow Baltic baller Kerr Kriisa—a big reason fans can be optimistic about the program’s future. And while the Wildcats are currently in sixth place in the Pac-12, Tubelis thinks this season is teaching them what it takes to win.
“Every game we had, it was a really tight game and we just run away in the last minute or we lost in last minute,” he said. “So I think it’s very good experience to learn and to fix our or my mistakes.”