Free-agent forward Donatas Motiejunas reportedly agreed to a $3 million contract with Shandong Golden Stars of the Chinese Basketball Association on Tuesday.
Motiejunas, 26, played 34 games last season for the New Orleans Pelicans. He averaged 4.4 points and 3.0 rebounds per game, shooting 41.3 percent from the floor.
After emerging as a promising stretch 7-footer early in his career, Motiejunas’ last two years have been a constant struggle. His minutes were cut nearly in half by the Houston Rockets from 2014-15 to 2015-16, and a contract standoff with the Rockets cost him $37 million before last season.
Houston had matched a four-year, $37 million deal Motiejunas signed with the Brooklyn Nets but later pulled its offer and let him hit the open market. The Pelicans signed him in January, with Motiejunas never really getting comfortable in the rotation. When New Orleans added DeMarcus Cousins at the All-Star break, it was all but impossible for Motiejunas to get any extended minutes.
“This season has definitely not been close to what I wanted to have, or how I wanted to play,” Motiejunas said in April. “But it is what it is. I was put in—or I put myself, however you want to look at it—in this situation. I did it to myself. This season was not what I looked forward to.
“It was a tough situation. From one side, I was forced into it. From the other side, it was my choice, too. I cannot blame anyone besides myself about it.”
Motiejunas all but confirmed his exit from New Orleans in a May interview with Lithuanian sports writer Donatas Urbonas. He cited the Pelicans’ existing logjam in the frontcourt as a major reason for his departure and listed San Antonio, Golden State, Utah and Washington as possible destinations.
“I want to play for a team where I would be a good fit and which play team basketball,” he said. “The money will come later.”
If Motiejunas finds regular playing time in China and takes advantage of lesser competition, he should have an easy path back to the NBA. It’s unclear whether his contract has an NBA out, but the CBA season ends during the latter half the NBA campaign. He might wind up being a piece added late in the season by a title contender.
If his performance continues to falter or his back issues flare up again, though, he might look back on that $37 million as the biggest missed opportunity of his career.
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