A t 2:20 p.m., the Marquette high school bell rings and students flood the halls, ready to head home after a long day of learning.
Mere moments after the sound echoes through the school, Marius Grazulis is already dressed for basketball practice. He’s ready so early, in fact, that coach Brad Nelson hasn’t even arrived, so there isn’t a basketball in sight. Grazulis is forced to wander. He does the occasional stretch, he jumps and grabs the rim with ease, and he chats with teammates as they file into the gym before disappearing into the locker room to change.
Aside from being 6-10, there isn’t anything about Grazulis that points to him being a dominant athlete. He’s got some sneaky strength, but looking at his slim body it’s hard to tell. He’s chipper and unassuming when he talks. He walks with a bit of a slouch, his long arms swinging casually at his sides.
But when you break down Marius Grazulis, piece by piece, you get a dominant basketball player, poised for success, not only in his senior season at Marquette but at the next level as well.
Grazulis is getting bored of waiting for practice to start, especially since he has something exciting to show off.
“Excuse me,” he asks anyone in the gym not related to the team, “Is it alright if we turn the lights off for a second?”
Then, Grazulis makes his way to center court and directs a teammate to flip the switch.
A thin green glow around the base of each shoe lights up in the dark as Grazulis struts around the court, showing off his brand new kicks.
The lights come back on to reveal a smiling Grazulis. He’s clearly proud of the shoes, but they are more than just a fashion statement.
As the Redmen line up to stretch before practice, three identical pairs can be found on the feet of Bryce Brazeau, Raffy Millado and Liam Darr.
The four seniors have been best friends for most of their lives — starting at Father Marquette Catholic Academy where they went through eighth grade — so for their final season at Marquette, they wanted to do something special. The shoes symbolize the bond they share.
“I have a really good friend-group that I’ve always had,” Grazulis said. “They are just a support system for me. So I have a family around here as well as at home.
“I didn’t go to a public school; I went to a private school and that really helped because there was like 24 kids in our class. That was a really small community and really tight-knit because you had no choice but to get along. Now it really helps on the court.”
Grazulis’ feet are more than a vessel for fancy shoes and a symbol of friendship. They also help make him a skilled big man.
At 6-10 it is easy for Grazulis to shoot over smaller defenders, and in the UP that is often what happens. But every now and then he comes across someone with his size.
It’s happening more often these days, as head coach Brad Nelson has made sure Grazulis and the Redmen play tough competition.
“You don’t see kids this size in the UP very often, but we have good competition downstate,” he said. “We play both Traverse City Schools, we play Brighton this year, we play Petoskey, Green Bay, Gaylord. You see teams that have 6-8 kids that go up against him, so that keeps him fresh for when he does come up here and has a 5-8 kid guarding him.”
Against opponents with comparable size, Grazulis gets to show off what he considers one of his biggest strengths: footwork.
He is more than capable of sneaking around a defender or two with his post moves. Grazulis has drop steps, step-throughs, step backs and a collection of other moves that require quick, skilled feet. The variety keeps defenders uncertain and off balance. It also helped Grazulis drop 14.4 points a game on 56 percent shooting last season.
At this point, you all get it. He’s 6-10. But it’s what Grazulis is able to do with that lanky, long-armed frame that makes him such a dynamic player. It’s what made him so attractive to the colleges recruiting him, and Grand Valley State, the school he eventually signed with.
So at this point on the basketball player checklist, Grazulis has height and footwork. But he’s not exactly a built big man. He’s got a bit of strength, but he can’t outmuscle opponents in the paint. Instead, he uses a complete game to dominate in and out of the key.
“He is probably one of the most skilled big kids that has ever been in the UP,” Nelson said. “For 6-10 he can shoot the 3, he can ball handle, he is good around the rim. He is outstanding, and that is why he is going to Grand Valley.”
His ability to stretch the floor is always a challenge for opponents. They can put a bigger defender on him to match Grazulis’ size in the paint, but then he will take them outside.
“Not many people think I can shoot,” he said smiling, “but I can definitely shoot the rock a little bit.”
So teams might choose to put a smaller, quicker defender on him to stop the threat of outside shooting or driving to the rim. But then, of course, Grazulis will make his way back to the paint.
“His ability to shoot will make him successful at the next level,” Nelson said. “Division I, Division II schools are looking for 6-8, 6-10 kids who can shoot the ball, and that’s him. Teams have to respect the fact that he can step back off a screen and drill a 3 from the top of the key. He can shoot over people, but at the same time, he can get to the rim and finish around the rim. He’s a versatile player.”
Attached to that athletic frame is a head with dark brown hair and a boyish smile. And inside is a bright mind that helps Grazulis make decisions on the court, in the classroom and about the future.
And as most coaches would, Nelson is quick to point out that Grazulis is smart, with a 4.0 GPA.
His mind also keeps him level-headed on the court, something that the senior takes pride in.
“If I get my shot blocked, I mean, I shouldn’t get my shot blocked, I’m 6-10,” he said laughing, “But if I do it’s not that big of a deal to me. I just go back out there and play some defense. I think that is the most important thing in basketball. When you make a shot, you shouldn’t celebrate, and when you miss, you shouldn’t pout.”
There are also things other than basketball swirling around in Grazulis’ mind. He likes to play the piano and loves singing. His mom is a choir teacher, so the whole family grew up around music.
Last year Grazulis missed a game in order to participate in a two-day state choir event in Grand Rapids. The Redmen lost, and Grazulis is smart enough to make the connection.
“I’m not missing a game for that again,” he said.
Grazulis has varied interests, but he still doesn’t know what he wants to study, or what kind of career to pursue. Instead, when he chose to sign at Grand Valley, he did it for other reasons, unrelated to basketball or an area of study.
“It was really about campus life for me because I really like interacting with people,” he said. “It wasn’t so much about the school, because I don’t really know what I want to do yet. But I knew I needed a big school so I could have better options. I didn’t want to go to a small school in a small community. I mean like Marquette, it is a nice community and a nice size, but I’ve lived here my whole life so I wanted to get away.”
When he gets away, Marius will be the last Grazulis to play for Marquette, at least for a while.
With four kids who all played basketball, the family dominated the Marquette basketball scene for quite some time. They also all earned spots on college rosters, playing at GLIAC schools. His only sister, Daina Grazulis played for Grand Valley, and then Davenport; Vejas Grazulis spent time on Northern Michigan’s roster and A.J. just finished his career at Michigan Tech.
When it came to picking a school, there was no bidding war between the siblings. Instead of encouraging Marius to go to the school they attended, each sibling just wanted him to go where he felt most comfortable.
In the end, that was Grand Valley, but having someone familiar with each school certainly came in handy.
“It was pretty interesting and it really helped,” he said. My brother [A.J.] just finished up at Tech, and he really knew, it was fresh in his brain of what college is really like, so I asked him questions along the way. I’ve been to all of the campuses, even before I went on a visit, so I was kind of familiar with all the coaches and the places.”
Even before he was tasked with choosing a team and school, the Grazulis siblings helped Marius develop as a basketball player.
Each one has a different playing style, and through many games in the driveway growing up, Marius was able to pick up bits and pieces from each sibling.
First, he learned to defend.
“When you have a bunch of different playing styles and you are defending them in the driveway, all of it kind of helped,” he said.
From Daina he learned to play more back to the basket; from Vejas (who Marius says has the most similar game to him) he learned about slashing to the rim and hunting his shot from beyond the arc. And from A.J., he learned about work ethic, something Marius says he is still trying to improve.
“I have more of the natural skills than him,” Marius said. “But I need to do that, get out there and work hard every day. He wasn’t really born with the tools, but he worked hard so he could get them.”
Growing up with a family of athletes wasn’t much different than any other group of siblings, Marius said. They were all competitive with each other, trying to be the best at something — no matter what it was.
But Marius has the others beat when it comes to basketball — at least in his mind.
“I wouldn’t say they would agree that I’m the best, but they didn’t get nearly as much recruiting attention as I did,” he said with a grin spreading across his face.
The final piece to Marius Grazulis is the red and white jersey he dons every time he steps on the court. Eventually that will change to black and blue at Grand Valley, but for now, he is proud to be a Redman. He always has been.
“I’m just trying to help the team in any way I can,” he said. “I’m not really looking for any individual goals, not really looking to prove myself. I’ve already committed to a college. I don’t really see the need to get out there and try for individual goals, I just want the team to go as far as it can in playoffs.”
Last year Marquette lost to Gaylord 60-46 in the district semifinals.
The pressure was on a little bit more during his junior year as Grazulis hunted for a college scholarship, but he kept being a good teammate at the forefront of his mind, figuring the rest would take care of itself.
“I felt like all I needed to do was play as a teammate,” he said. “I mean, that is what colleges are really looking for. They don’t want you to go out there and play selfishly. They want you to go out there and be a teammate. That is the most important thing, can you mesh with the guys.”
At Marquette, he certainly does. Before practice the senior jokes around with teammates. They laugh easily and often, and Grazulis is at the center of it all.
That’s typical Grazulis: light-hearted, calm and unselfish. About most things at least.
There is one personal accomplishment that Grazulis wants, and despite his best efforts, he isn’t great at hiding it.
Last season, as a junior, Grazulis averaged 14.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks a game. His numbers and skills should have made him a lock for All-UP First Team, and given him a solid chance to make Dream Team. Instead, Grazulis was named to the second team.
“It definitely did bother me a little bit,” he said. “But I know where I’m at as a player, and I don’t need rankings and awards.”
Still, something in his tone changes when he says it. Marius Grazulis doesn’t need awards or recognition, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want what he’s earned. What high school kid wouldn’t?
So the snub is on his mind, adding a little bit more competitive spirit to his overall makeup. One more piece added, making Marius Grazulis an even more dangerous player.