Jonas Valanciunas: 2013 NBA R.O.Y.?
So far this season we have heard nothing but praise about Toronto Raptors 2011 first round draft pick Jonas Valanciunas as he works his way through another long season with Lietuvos Rytas in Europe. In fact, this past week he earned another honor as the FIBA European Young Men’s Player of the Year of 2011.
Details of Valanciunas’ development, however, are often in short supply and usually second- or third-hand. Fortunately, the Toronto Raptors shuffled their head office, appointed Maurizio Gherardini as Vice-president of International Scouting, and based him out of Europe for the season to keep tabs on their very important young prospect.
“With the reorganization of our front office, my main focus is turning to what the international scenario is looking like,” explained Gherardini after watching Sonny Weems’ Lithuanian team play. “I try to go where the prospects are, and also, we were lucky enough to draft a very promising international player in the last draft who we hope is going to be an important piece of our future. I think spending some time with him, watching him in action, and trying to stay as close to his situation as possible could make what is ahead of him easier.”
After the draft in June, among the very excited Raptors management group, there wasn’t a more enthusiastic member than Gherardini when describing Valanciunas to the media as a young Tyson Chandler with good feet. Apparently, after watching Valanciunas develop over this season, that description still stands, and then some.
“That would still stand, but we are talking about a guy who is developing daily, so we still don’t know a lot of things about him. We’ll find out together how and when he will reach his potential. There could be a comparison, but I think Jonas talent is very intriguing, and when taken to his full potential, he is going to develop into more of a complete package. Jonas has the talent to become a high quality all-around big man.”
The European basketball season is not structured like US college or the NBA and the results being reported need to taken in the context of where they were played and at what level.
“Now his team competing in three different leagues at the same time, the Lithuanian league, the VTB league and the Eurocup. That translates into two or three games per week.
“Eurocup is a higher level of competition than US college, there is no doubt about that, but it is not easy to make comparisons as you are talking about a different age of competitors. Jonas is fighting with guys who are pros and have been pros for many years, it is more like a veteran players game.”
In the Eurocup this season, Valanciunas has played 10 games averaging 9.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, and in the Last 16 (playoffs), he was ranked first in blocks and rebounds. From a North American perspective however, we need to see how this young prospect deals former NBA centers to project what this all means.
When Lietuvos Rytas faced Lokomotiv Kuba and their former NBA center Primoz Brezec in a Last 16 game, Valanciunas had eight points and 13 rebounds in 22.5 minutes. Few US college players are ready to compete against a 32-year-old NBA veteran center in a meaningful game. (Note: Brezec is not Lokomotiv’s best center.)
The VTB league also has some top European clubs including powerhouse CSKA Moscow.
“I watched him live when they played CSKA Moscow which is probably the very top team in Europe these days. They lost, but they were in it until the end, and Valanciunas played pretty well against the bigs of Moscow. In the game against CSKA, he was going against Krstic, Khryapa, and Kirilenko, that’s different than going to a normal college game.”
In 12 VTB league games, Valanciunas is averaging 10.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, but in two games against Nenad Krstic and Andrey Kirilenko of Moscow, he averaged 11.5 points and 8.5 rebounds to further cement the fact he can play effectively against NBA big men now.
The Lithuanian league does not feature the same level of competition as the VTB, but it is still a pro league with a number of good teams. Over 12 games, Valanciunas is averaging 15.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks.
Valanciunas’ development this season is heavily dependent on the efforts of Lietuvos Rytas management and their head coach Aleksandar Dzikic. The Raptors have made every effort to foster a strong relationship with the team and are benefiting from an unexpected ace-in-the-hole. It was Casey who invited Dzikic to coach in the NBA.
“Keep in mind the Dzikic spent two years in Minnesota where he worked with Coach Casey from 2005 to 2007. He knows what the NBA will demand from a young player, he understands what you have to get ready for, and I think that helps the transition from one kind of scenario to the one that is lying ahead of Jonas. Some of the concepts between (Casey and Dzikic) are fairly similar. There is an open line of communication between him and Casey, they have been friends through the years, and there is a very good relationship. It’s a great coincidence, but Jonas is going to benefit from that and we are going to benefit from that.”
Not nearly a finished product, Valanciunas is working on a number of aspects to his game during this season with the support of both organizations.
“He has to become stronger because that’s a natural way to grow. You have to build up your strength and stamina and that that takes time because your overall body has to develop. He needs to improve things like his defensive slides rather than just playing against the big guys in the paint, and improve some of his offensive moves.
“He is working on his shot three to four meters away from the basket (10 to 13 feet) which is something that you need to have in your game. He is working on his fakes and power moves and I can see every game a new move or a new fake. He is trying to add different dimensions to his game so it is not just pick-and-roll or stuff very close to the basket. He wants to make his man worry a little more about all of the different things he can do away from the basket. He is a good free throw shooter and he has a good touch, so he just needs to work on his shot to have more of an all-around offensive game.
“He is definitely progressing. I have seen him at different stages over the past six to eight months and notwithstanding the fact that he going through a very busy year, physically speaking he is getting stronger.”
Valanciunas’ season in Europe continues and will soon lead to a pre-Olympic qualifying tournament with his national team and hopefully the Olympics this summer, but Gherardini provides some excellent insight into where Valanciunas is right now.
“I think he has been fairly consistent in terms of numbers, his minutes, points and rebounds.
“He has been getting better, getting stronger and he is working on his game and his body at the same time.
“He is a very active player, very awake and very eager to learn, but he is going to take time. He is extremely aggressive. He is not afraid of sacrificing his body to go and help, and shot blocking is probably one of his best assets.
“Overall we are satisfied with the way Jonas is growing, developing and maturing. Let’s not forget that he is not 20-years-old yet.”
The most important question is how will Valanciunas’ talent translate to the NBA, and how quickly?
“He is a talented player with a lot of enthusiasm who wants to succeed as a NBA player. He has aggressiveness in how he plays the game, aggressiveness in a good way. He wants to learn the game and he knows he needs to work at it. He has the qualities to make the adjustment period as short as possible.
“Because he is an athlete, because he runs and has a good basketball I.Q., he has everything to translate to the NBA game.”
The Toronto Raptors are understandably cautious in projecting how well Valanciunas will perform after he arrives next season and how long it will take to adapt to the NBA game, but with the efforts of Gherardini, Dzikic, fellow countryman and Raptor Linas Kleiza, and Valanciunas himself, this is one young European who should adapt very quickly. The 2010 under-18 and 2011 under-19 FIBA world champion and MVP continues to develop along a path that, despite some stiff competition, should make him an early favorite in next year’s rookie-of-the-year race.
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