Raptors GM Swings For the Fences On Draft Night

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You could practically hear the sobs and whimpers from Toronto Raptors fans after the team nabbed Lithuanian centre prospect Jonas Valanciunas with the fifth overall pick in the NBA Draft.

Another European “project”, the popular opinion went, is decidedly not what the Raptors needed to walk away with on draft night. But for Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo, this represents the kind of brash self-confidence he’s demonstrated since arriving in Toronto.

This is, after all, the same guy who looked over future All-Stars like LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo, and Rudy Gay in 2006 to select a relatively unknown Italian 7-footer, Andrea Bargnani (who has been a polarizing figure in Raptorland since then) with the first overall pick. And yet, five years later, we can’t help but be impressed with Colangelo’s latest big gamble.

The 19-year old Valanciunas enjoyed a surprising rise up draft boards in the days leading up to the draft—partially due to a series of jaw-dropping workouts in front of NBA scouts and the realization that this year’s crop of big man prospects was wildly underwhelming.

An aggressive rebounder and legitimate post-presence (basically the antithesis of what Bargnani brings to the court), Valanciunas addresses the Raptors’ biggest need, even if it will take some time for him to refine his skills and grow into his formidable 6’11’’ frame. Thankfully with a roster peppered with salary-cap eating stiffs and a mandate to let the team’s young core develop organically, time is on the Raptors side.

Don’t get me wrong—drafting Valanciunas was an incredibly ballsy move for Colangelo. Leading up to the draft, it was widely accepted that the Raps would use their pick to secure a bona fide point guard prospect (because Jerryd Bayless ain’t gonna cut it), choosing either Kentucky’s Brandon Knight or the reigning NCAA Player of the Year and national champion from UConn, Kemba Walker.

When Knight—who was projected to go to the Utah Jazz at number three—fell to the Raptors, it seemed all but certain that Colangelo would appease his fan base and go with the American collegiate star.

Adding fuel to the fire, reports surfaced days before the draft that Valanciunas will likely not be available to play in the NBA next season due to contract issues with his current club team in Lithuania. Surely Colangelo wouldn’t dare to take the one guy guaranteed to make zero impact on the club next year, right? Like I said, ballsy.

Despite just signing a two-year extension with the Raps, Bryan Colangelo is an executive in the crosshairs (a massive understatement, I know). He hasn’t been shy about making bold moves to help the club develop—the $56 million Hedo Turkoglu signing comes to mind—but has seen just about every one of them blow up in his face.

While the Raptors clearly weren’t ready for life after Chris Bosh heading into the 2010-11 season, Colangelo somehow managed to fill out his young roster with a bevy of grossly overpaid (and therefore likely untradeable) players. In signing Bargnani, Jose Calderon, Amir Johnson, and Linas Kleiza for a combined $86 million over the next three years, he’s essentially shot himself (and the team) in the foot—not to mention that Leandro Barbosa just picked up his $7.6 million option for this coming season.

Which is what makes the Valanciunas pick—or Colangelo’s willingness to make the pick—so fascinating. The Raptors, pegged by oddsmakers in Vegas to finish dead last next season, are in a position to stockpile prospects for the future.

This isn’t like in 2005, when the Raptors were en route to becoming contenders until then-GM Rob Babcock passed on potential key puzzle-pieces to select the not-so-formidable duo of Charlie Villaneuva and Joey Graham in the first round, setting the franchises’ progress back for years. The Raps will likely enter next season with the same young roster we saw sputter to 22 wins last year, meaning if there was ever a time for Raptors fans to exercise patience, it’s now.

Colangelo had to have known that the Valanciunas pick would conjure memories of failed foreign Raptors prospects of the recent pass (do Rafael Aroujo, Roko Ukic, and Uros Slokar ring a bell?), but we should give him significant kudos for doing what’s right and providing the team with a legitimate centre to build around for the future. I believe the word I’m looking for is cajones.

Meanwhile, while the Raptors rolled the dice with the Lithuanian kid…

The Cavaliers gave their fans a glimmer of hope after landing top pick Kyrie
Irving and Brampton native Tristan Thompson, who stunned draft pundits by going
fourth overall—although it likely won’t translate into wins any time soon…

The Minnesota Timberwolves opted to hold on to their 2nd overall pick and took
former Arizona standout Derrick Williams, arguably the best player in the
draft—even if the T’Wolves already have about four guys who play the same
position….

The Utah Jazz surprised their fans by passing over point guard Brandon Knight to take Turkish centre Enes Kanter, the logical pick given the NBA’s void of talent at the position. Plus, now Salt Lake City can lay claim to be home of the Turkish Towers, Kanter and veteran Mehmet Okur (but will they complete the trifecta and trade for Hedo Turkoglu?)….

While they probably won’t make the playoffs any time soon, fans in Washington will be smitten with the roughly 3,448 alley-oops John Wall will throw to 6th overall pick Jan Vesely (who, when asked in his post-draft interview about people calling him the Czech version of Blake Griffin answered, “Griffin is the American Jan Vesely”).

Washington also landed defensive-stalwart Chris Singleton in the first round and Butler standout Shelvin Mack in the second—a great night for the new-look Wizards….

The Charlotte Bobcats—yes, the Bobcats—made a savvy trade that left them drafting both 7th and 9th, where they walked away with the tantalizing duo of Bismack Biyombo and Kemba Walker….

Sacramento traded to get Jimmer Fredette, immediately giving birth to the most awkward backcourt situation when he has to co-exist with fellow-ball hog Tyreke Evans…

The San Antonio Spurs left many scratching their heads when they traded guard George Hill to the Indiana Pacers for Kawhi Leonard, who inexplicably fell to 15th (we expect big things from Leonard)….

And the Houston Rockets drafted this generation’s Shawn Bradley, 6’11” Chandler Parsons—not because he’s white, but because he’s going to get dunked on. A lot.

Dave Zarum is a basketball writer from Toronto. When he’s not writing about the
NBA, Dave trains his dogs to chill on command, and is currently working on a comprehensive Early ’90s Baseball Movies Guide. Deal with it, Maltin. You can find some of Dave’s works at torontolife.com or 4three.wordpress.com

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