Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
When Deividas Zemgulis got to the United States from his native Lithuania last June he decided to watch movies and read books to work on his English. His choices might have been somewhat unorthodox, however: ‘Friday’ and ‘Rush Hour.’
That certainly gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “do you understand the words coming out of my mouth?”
“It was not my idea whatsoever. It was his teammates’ idea,” said Blaine Somerville, an assistant at St. Mary Ryken (Md.) who took Zemgulis into his home. “So unfortunately some of the English he learned early on was English that his teammates were using, if you understand. So I had to clean a lot of that English up.”
Zemgulis–who goes by Davis–has been playing basketball since sixth grade. He realized after playing with the Lithuanian U-16 team last year that he was missing out on the physicality and athleticism that was prevalent over in the States, and meetings with his mother and uncle got him connected with St. Mary Ryken, a private high school of around 700 kids located in Leonardtown, Md.
His first experience with American basketball was on the AAU circuit, where he plays with Threat 220 (Md.).
“There were no plays–you know AAU basketball, players flying up and down, it was so fast,” Zemgulis said at last weekend’s Elevate Hoops Showdown. “I was like ‘whoa, why did I come?’ I wanted to go home.”
Eventually, Zemgulis settled into his new surroundings. Blaine and his wife of 20 years, Tonja, are both basketball coaches, and though they have no kids of their own they’ve had several boys and girls–some relatives, some not–live with them for various reasons during their marriage.
Zemgulis was their first-ever foreign exchange student, though that didn’t change much.
“Having an athlete at the house, we’re always in the gym, so for us it was just having one extra person we were taking to the gym with us,” Somerville said.
Of course, the main reason that Zemgulis left his hometown of Kaunas was to get better at basketball, and to use that to get an education at the highest level he could. What level that was was up for debate.
He didn’t know a ton about Division I hoops–“I just knew North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky,” he said. “That’s it.” It was in February that he learned about a new school.
After a loss to DeMatha in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) quarterfinals, Zemgulis was riding home with one of his coaches, when they delivered some good news–he’d gotten his first Division I scholarship offer.
“My coach was like ‘you just got an offer from Penn State,’” he said, “and I was like ‘from who?’”
Nittany Lions head coach Pat Chambers had made the trip down to Gallaudet University to watch the 6-foot-6, 200-pound wing, who had 17 points in the losing effort.
He was impressed with Zemgulis’ performance enough to extend a scholarship offer, and quickly a relationship formed between Chambers, Somerville and Zemgulis.
It was the only offer that Zemgulis would need.
Though the original plan was to play through the whole July live period and see who else offered, by May 12, he’d come to the conclusion that Chambers and PSU offered everything he wanted. Somerville didn’t need to be convinced any further.
“The more Davis thought about it,” he said, “the more he said ‘what am I waiting for, they have everything i want?’ And I said ‘that’s my opinion.’”
That Penn State had only made the NCAA Tournament once in the past 13 years didn’t bother him in the slightest.
“I really liked the facility, the coaching staff is awesome, I could hang out with the players, I loved the campus,” Zemgulis said. “I want to help the team win, because I like being the underdog and just playing hard, playing tough.”
In a late-night consolation-bracket game at the Showdown, Zemgulis scored 13 points in a loss, with Chambers and assistant Brian Daly watching from the baseline. Though his shot wasn’t falling as consistently as it usually does–Somerville said he’s seen Zemgulis hit 40 straight in a workout–it was easy to see why the former Villanova assistant and Boston University head coach was so intrigued.
He’s got a wingspan that’s easily 6-9 or 6-10, with the ability to put the ball on the floor though he said that’s the part of his game he needs to work on the most. Zemgulis can pull up from the mid-range with a quick release but also works well off screens and drifts to open spots on the perimeter while his guards drive-and-kick.
Most impressively, though, is what he does on the other end. Far from a typical European shooter, Zemgulis is a very good athlete (and good student, with a 3.9 GPA) who will come off the weak side to block shots, rebounds well and doesn’t mind mixing it up in the paint.
“Honestly, Penn State got a steal,” Somerville said. “And I mean, that is no disrespect whatsoever to Penn State…but in terms of the top 25 rankings, there’s no doubt in my mind that he could have gone to a school in the top 15 or so. But he’s at the absolute right place.
“When he got here to the States, he was like a lot of European players, not used to the physicalness of the game, so he goes into the weight room in the mornings and gets shots up in the evenings; he was doing that before school every day after basketball season. So they’re getting somebody who’s going to work, and work hard, and the reason he’s here is to get an education and play basketball; he doesn’t have a lot of the distractions that some of the kids have.”
That switch from the European style to more American way of playing the game wasn’t something that happened gradually, like one might expect.
“He came to me one day, I think it was right around December, right around Christmas time,” Somerville said. “We’d played one or two early conference games, we’d played a lot of tournaments and he came to me one day and he said ‘you know what, I just decided that I’m going to play as hard and as physical as I can, and we’ll see what happens.
“And it changed right there.”
Zemgulis was the second member of Penn State’s Class of 2015 when he committed, along with Math, Civics & Sciences (Pa.) forward Mike Watkins. They were joined more recentlyby Oak Hill Academy (Va.) shooting guard Josh Reaves, a consensus four-star prospect.
The trio, who could be joined by another prospect before they get to campus next fall, are already getting noticed as one that could really have a big impact in the Big 10.
“I played with Reaves when I was at the Penn State camp, and [it] kind of was a deal where he’d pass to me [when] driving,” Zemgulis said. “He can jump high, I’m a spot-up shooter, so he drives, he kicks to me…I like playing with him.”
Now Zemgulis can just focus on his senior season and wait lies beyond. For a year ago he was just getting adjusted to the United States, and a year from now he’ll have to adjust to Happy Valley.
As excited as he is for college already, one can imagine the second transition will go much, much easier than the first.
“I came from nothing,” he said, “and now I have Penn State.”