The tiny country of Lithuania is situated in Northeastern Europe—gaining its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is home to just 2.9 million people. Despite its small size, and being years removed from its former economic and military glories, Lithuania still punches above its weight when it comes one particular global interest: the sport of basketball.
Lithuanian players had always played a prominent role on the great Soviet Union teams of the 70s and 80s—particularly the 1988 Olympic gold medal winners—and since independence Lithuania has won three Olympic bronze medals, one bronze medal at the FIBA World Cup and a host of EuroBasket medals.
Over the past 20 years Lithuania has been healthily represented in the NBA, with legends like Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis wowing North American crowds, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, now a special advisor in the Cavaliers front office, becoming an entrenched fan-favourite.
The latest in a long line of Lithuanian ballers to cross the Atlantic—and to hopefully make a similar impact to those aforementioned players—is Toronto Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas was drafted 5th overall in the 2011 NBA draft by the Raptors. The team stashed him in Europe for one year before bringing him over to start his NBA career during the 2012-2013 season.
Many Raptors fans were skeptical of the pick at first—the team has seen its fair share of draft picks wasted on European talent that hasn’t panned out (see Bargnani, Andrea) and waiting one year for a young kid from Lithuania to come over, when the instant gratification of drafting a ready-to-roll North American player, was trying on the fan-base’s patience.
Two years on, however, with Valanciunas entering his third season in the league, the pick looks like an astute one.
A position of need
If you polled Raptors fans on who some of the greatest players in franchise history are you’d probably hear the likes of Vince Carter, Chris Bosh and even Jose Calderon mentioned. What you wouldn’t hear, however, is many of the team’s past centres named. Throughout their 20-year history, the Raptors haven’t had a whole lot of talent in the middle.
Across the league, in fact, game-changing centers are becoming much more of a rarity. That’s reflected by the fact that the position has been scrapped on the All-Star ballot—three forwards can now be selected in the starting lineup. That scarcity creates great demand; when big men with potential—raw or otherwise—declare for the draft, they are often selected very high. Valanciunas was one such player—a raw talent who was taken high by a team who had traditionally struggled filling one of the most important positions in the game.
As well as its importance from a strategic standpoint, the center position is one of the most demanding in basketball —you’re up against seven-foot bruisers every night, battling for rebounds, setting screens and trying to score, or stop opponents scoring, in the paint.
Valanciunas did, however, play professional basketball in his native country for four years before coming over to North America—he didn’t go in blind. That experience, he tells us when we have a chance to talk to him after the Raptors season opener, has stood him in good stead: “I’ve said a lot of times, every minute you spend on the court is some kind of experience. I had a pretty good experience when I was back overseas, so that helped”.
But despite his experience in Europe, Valanciunas understands that NBA basketball is a different beast—players are faster, stronger, more athletic.
During Valancinuas’ rookie season the big man put up respectable numbers—eight points and four rebounds per game—and made the All Rookie Second Team, but the transition to basketball in North America, and life in general, was a difficult one. It didn’t help, of course, that Valanciunas was joining a struggling team, one that would miss the playoffs by a large margin.
The summer after his rookie campaign Valanciunas spent hours in the gym working on his physique—building muscle to protect himself against the giants of the game, who are looking to make his life miserable down in the trenches of the low post. He participated in Summer League in Vegas and dominated the competition, collecting Summer League MVP honours and becoming a name many in the media were raving about.
Valanciunas’ second season was an improvement on his first, both from an individual and a team perspective. The Raptors were one of the league’s surprise packages, winning 48 games and making the post-season. Individually Valanciunas upped his points per game and rebounding averages; and during the razor-thin playoff loss to the Brooklyn Nets, he averaged close to a double-double.
But much more is expected from Valanciunas this year and he knows it. Year three is usually the point when talented, young players make the jump from inconsistent raw potential—showing flashes of what they can do on the court—to consistent, quality performers. The Toronto Raptors coaching staff, media and fan-base expects and needs Valanciunas to make the jump to that next level.
The centre of attention
“The attention is not taking my humbleness,” Valanciunas responds when we ask him about the added focus on him going into this season. “I haven’t proved that I’m the best centre in the league, so I have a lot of things to do.”
That response would more than likely be reiterated by Raptors coach Dwane Casey, a guy who isn’t short on praise for his big man when he performs, but someone who also isn’t shy about doling out criticism and restricting minutes when he slips up. Last season Casey kept his centre on a relatively short leash—Valanciunas has a tendency to get into foul trouble and Casey has shown a reluctance to let him play through early fouls. He’s also had issues defending the pick-n-roll during his early going in the league and Casey, a defensive-minded disciplinarian, has let the media know when he’s been unhappy with Valanciunas’ defence.
“I’m trying to set my mind to be a leader on this team and to try to help DeMar and Kyle Lowry,” Valanciunas says when asked about the additional responsibility on his shoulders this season.
Last season the Raptors got much of their offensive production from the backcourt pairing of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but in order for the team to take the next step in its development—to advance further in the post-season—they need to vary their offence. The offence needs to become much less perimeter-heavy, much less predictable. Valanciunas, already a very good player rolling to the rim and finishing on the pick-n-roll, stands to be an important alternative to that perimeter-oriented attack. It’s an alternative that will, if successful, open up space for the backcourt players
Valanciunas is developing a nice touch from mid-range—crucial for any big-man who wants to be an offensive force in the NBA—and his crafty shot-fake has got opposing centres to leave their feet at times (Andre Drummond was one such victim). His post-up game, however, remains a work in progress.
Ultimately Valanciunas knows that he can really help his team offensively by mucking it up inside, drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line: “If you’re aggressive you’re going to go to the foul line. I’m trying to be aggressive so I’m able to go to the foul line.” If Valanciunas can get to the line more consistently he’ll provide a major boost for his team. He’s an excellent free-throw shooter for a big man, averaging 77 per cent from the charity stripe during his short career.
Aggression, or rather controlled aggression, is something Valanciunas definitely needs playing down low in the NBA. During his rookie season opposing big men often laid hard fouls on Valanciunas, almost as if they were testing out his toughness, seeing if they could break him; European players have traditionally had a reputation (somewhat unfairly) for being soft. Tyler Hansbrough, now a teammate of Valanciunas, seemed to revel in roughing him up when the Raptors played his old team, the Indiana Pacers. More recently Valanciunas has had some on-court physical altercations with Kings toughguy DeMarcus Cousins.
While off the court Valanciunas is a laid-back guy, the first to crack a joke with his teammates and reporters, on the court he’s quickly realized that he needs to become someone else; he needs to develop a thick skin, he needs to become meaner. “I’m not going to be able to go to work if I’m going to be friendly”, Valanciunas tells us. “It’s a physical game. I don’t have anything against those guys off the court, but you know, on the court they are my enemies”.
Valanciunas laughs when we mention that he plays with a chip on his shoulder, but it’s clear to him that it’s a necessary to play with an edge, to avoid falling into the trap of being too passive on the court.
As a team, under the stewardship of Masai Ujiri and the on-court leadership of Kyle Lowry the Raptors have finally the shaken a reputation for passivity, a reputation for being pushovers; a team that no one wants to play for and that everyone wants to beat on. Valanciunas has the chance to take that team to the next level, to be that anchor, or in Valanciunas’ own words, “that big man in the middle.”
“I still have a long way to go to prove that I’m the big guy, so I’m working hard” Valanciunas says. “I need to stay hungry, play physical, play 100 per cent”.
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