Name: Jonas Valanciunas
Weight: 231 lbs.
College: n/a [Lietuvos Rytas, Euroleague]
Season with Raptors: Rookie
2011-2012 Stats: n/a
Analysis: Writing a profile of the capabilities of someone I’ve hardly seen play except on tape is not the easiest assignment. However, he’s too important to the Raps to gloss over, so with some trepidation, and hoping in advance for readers’ leniency, I begin.
Drafting Jonas Valanciunas fifth in 2011 is on the short list of Bryan Colangelo’s boldest moves. BC was fully aware that Jonas could not join the Raps for the ’11-‘12 season because of his professional contract, yet thought enough of the giant Lithuanian’s potential to bear the fans’ grumbling, and the pundits’ flak. Jonas wasn’t wasting away last season, while the Raps faithful called for relief. He played his third pro season for Lietuvos Rytas, and the Euroleague is no picnic at the beach. I’m comfortable saying it’s at least equal to a season in the D-League, or in U.S. college.
Big things were expected of JV during the London Olympics, but they didn’t happen. Lithuania disappointed its confident countrymen, and underdog fans worldwide, by bowing out in the quarterfinals. JV was severely limited in his minutes by his coach, whose judgement is highly questionable. JV got himself in foul trouble a few times, but was never given enough playing time in other games to find his footing.
Without getting too off-topic, European teams seem to operate like a trade union or guild, where seniority is prized. Perhaps as the inevitable result of that thinking, Lithuania’s Coach Kemzura didn’t play Jonas, his youngest player and most talented big man, and instead gave most of the minutes to his veterans. Coach K, if you are determined to apportion minutes by the European “book”, your team better grab a medal. It didn’t, and maybe it wouldn’t have even if JV was out there. But an opportunity was lost. There’s no guarantee Lithuania makes it to the Rio Olympics in ’16, and if they don’t, JV is going to be bitter about having been asked to wait his turn – and his turn didn’t come.
To continue: JV is a prodigiously gifted basketball player. He is but a fraction under seven-feet tall, yet from what I’ve seen, he’s as mobile as a guard. Jonas is quicker than most big men to the top of his impressive vertical leap. His frame is solid and well-proportioned, which we fervently hope will keep him clear of those ghastly injuries which so often bedevil very tall humans. His footwork is impressive, and consequently he is able to find seams in the big-man wall, and get quality close-in shots off, with relative ease. Of course, great footwork helps on the other side of the ball, and JV gets his share of blocked- and changed-shots.
Jonas is in motion more than most bigs, and I think he and Kyle Lowry should be able to hook up many times on pick-and-roll plays in the high post. Hopefully the Raps have already drawn up a number of new plays to take advantage of JV’s nonstop motor. I’d love to see more motion in our offense, rather than the isolation nonsense that characterizes so many NBA teams. I’m looking at you, Knicks and Lakers, with your ballstoppers par excellence Carmelo and Kobe.
Jonas appears to have a most engaging personality. He revels in the spotlight (there’s a YouTube video of him dancing in woman’s attire & makeup on the court). The Raptors appear to have rolled out the red carpet on his first trip to Toronto, which to me demonstrates that they knew he would appreciate being made to feel special.
JV’s defence will be ahead of his offence, at least early in his career. That’s fine by me, as we shouldn’t expect a huge contribution beyond what he can provide on the offensive glass, and perhaps cutting to the hoop late on the fast break. His responsibilities on the defensive side of the ball will be enormous. JV will need to be the board-cleaner we’ve never had at the 5. He’ll have to challenge every shot he can and not get pushed around by the bullies in the low block. Can he filter out the noise he’s certain to hear from champion smack-talkers like Kevin Garnett?
Jonas will need to learn the fine art of taking charges, and not over-reacting when he gets called for the block. Let’s get serious: if Lebron comes down the lane, and takes off into JV, who’s going to get the call – the superstar or the European rookie? I recall so many times when Karl Malone would use his scissor kick on his jumper to create contact, and then go to the line while the defender pleaded his (legitimate) case in vain to uncaring refs. The NBA pays homage to its stars, just as European teams play their veterans when youthful alternatives are available. Life is unfair, often more so to the young.
This season is likely to be a trying one for our youthful star-in-waiting. He’ll have 16-point, 9-rebound, 2-block nights, and others when none of his columns, except his fouls, are close to full. Coach Casey will need to be aggressively patient with him, and yes, that’s a deliberate oxymoron. The great John Wooden believed the idea that all players should be treated equally is nonsense; he thought a coach’s job was to discover how each player needed to be treated in order to extract that player’s best work. We’ll need to be patient with Dwane Casey this year as well. He’s going to be leaning heavily on a rookie in one of the game’s toughest positions – let’s hope they can figure each other out quickly.
Key stat to watch-BPG: Bargnani’s first season in Toronto was a huge disappointment, as his touch fouls landed him on the bench time and again. JV won’t get many calls, as noted above. If he can average more than a block per game, it will be a clear indicator that his skills have crossed the Atlantic without loss, and that he’s gained some grudging respect from the stripes. By definition, if he’s credited with a block, he didn’t foul. Staying out of foul trouble, and in the game, will be critical to his development.
He stays on the floor if: He keeps his head up after a mistake. There will be plenty of those, and he’ll need to learn the Zen-like skill of letting them go, and staying in the present.
If he can do that, and show progress, we’ll have a true centre for the first time ever.
Brian Boake is a staff writer for Raptors Rapture. “Like” Raptors Rapture on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @RaptorsRapture for all the latest news and updates about the best damn NBA team from Canada.