Jonas Valanciunas Shines in Limited Time
Even though Toronto Raptors rookie Jonas Valanciunas has been restricted to a limited role by Lithuania’s head coach Kestutis Kemzura, the 20-year-old center has shined in the minutes he hass received. The box score critics of Valanciunas’ efforts should take another look and if you enjoy basketball, Lithuania is a team worth watching as their battle with the U.S. attests.
Lithuania has a history of success at the Olympics and World Championships and is one of only a handful of teams to defeat a U.S. team comprised entirely of NBA players at the Olympics. Even though Lithuania seems predestined to finish fourth in their pool and likely face a quick exit in the Quarter Finals, Coach Kemzura is not in London to develop players for the future and Valanciunas has accepted that his minutes will be limited regardless of how he plays. Kemzura will rely on his veterans even when they struggle.
Over four games, Valanciunas has averaged 4.5 points on 60 percent shooting, 2.3 rebounds, 0.5 blocks and 2.5 fouls in ten minutes. The oft-cited observation that Kemzura is sitting Valanciunas due to foul trouble doesn’t hold up as Valanciunas has yet to receive a fourth foul in any game.
Valanciunas’ Olympic experience is something that couldn’t be replicated by the NBA Summer League, practice or pickup games in the U.S. The Raptors’ rookie has been starting the first and third quarters of each Olympic game opposite veterans or even star-level NBA players.
Lithuania vs. Argentina
In Lithuania’s opening game against Argentina, Valanciunas won the opening tip over long-time NBA veteran and international star Luis Scola and played six minutes in the first quarter. On Lithuania’s second defensive sequence, Andres Nocioni drove in uncontested from the outside only to meet the smothering defense of Valanciunas at the rim and get turned away. The next trip, Valanciunas met Scola as he received a pass at the elbow 15 feet from the basket and forced Scola into a weak contested jump shot. After deterring Scola from shooting at the same spot on the next possession, Argentina became a little more creative at getting Scola the ball off of movement, resulting in a game-high 32 points for the veteran by the time it was over.
During that solid first quarter for Lithuania, Valanciunas tipped out two traffic rebounds from beneath his own basket for fast break opportunities.
Valanciunas started the second half by picking up two more rebounds and stopping Scola again in the paint with his position and length, but he was pulled after 2:45 as the game slipped away.
Argentina was a tough matchup for Lithuania. Manu Ginobili tore through Lithuania’s perimeter defense like it wasn’t there and when Lithuania backed off the three-point line, Argentina rained three-pointers down on them. Deep and heavily favored, Argentina ran away with this game after the first quarter.
Lithuania vs. Nigeria
Against a smallish team from Nigeria, Valanciunas should have had his way on the interior. Early on, he had an alley-oop dunk and an easy put-back followed by two blocks on the same play at the other end. After that initial success, however, his teammates couldn’t seem to find him as Valanciunas stood alone in the paint on most plays watching his teammates hoist from distance. That described the balance of his night.
It is worth remembering that Nigeria defeated Lithuania in pool play at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, but in this game Nigeria was 1-16 on three-point attempts and connected on just 24.2 percent of the rest of their shots. Lithuania’s defensive flaws versus Argentina were still evident, but Nigeria failed to take advantage.
Lithuania vs. France
France has a deep roster of NBA players led by Tony Parker, and Valanciunas tipped off against NBA veteran Ronny Turiaf. Turiaf and Valanciunas traded baskets in the post to start the game, but Turiaf gave the youngster trouble inside, out-rebounding him 3-0 in the first few minutes and drawing a couple of fouls. Valanciunas made a nice offensive play, cutting across the paint with a hook shot for the and-one opportunity before exiting after five minutes of playing time.
Valanciunas blocked Boris Diaw in the paint one minute into the second half, but could not stop Turiaf from collecting the loose ball and scoring. A minute later, Valanciunas was substituted out of a tied game and did not get back on the floor.
Once again, Lithuania had no answer for players who can drive and hit the three as Parker and Nicolas Batum had big games and France shot 50 percent from three-point range to pull out the win.
Lithuania vs. United States
The U.S. was favored by 35 points in this matchup, but Lithuania has a long history of playing the heavily favored American team tough. Valanciunas won the tip over Tyson Chandler, but missed his first shot in the paint after just 10 seconds of play. A minute later, Martynas Pocius found Valanciunas unguarded beside the basket for the layup plus the and-one opportunity. Another minute later, Valanciunas made a nice move with the ball across the paint, but his hook shot over Chandler missed.
Five minutes in, Valanciunas was subbed out after grabbing Carmelo Anthony as he cut through the lane. Lithuania had a lot of trouble stopping the U.S. guards and cutters and when they backed off, the U.S. started making threes. Fortunately for Lithuania, the hot U.S. three-point shooting in the first quarter cooled off considerably the rest of the way.
Eight seconds into the second half, Valanciunas scored in the paint again off a pass from veteran point guard Sarunas Jasikevicius to pull Lithuania to within two points of the Americans. Valanciunas’ last memorable play was stepping up to protect the rim from a driving Kobe Bryant and taking a knee below the waist and an elbow to the throat for his troubles. Valanciunas picked up his second foul on the play and sat the remainder of the game.
Over the course of his first four Olympic contests, Valanciunas has confirmed what has become expected of him. The young center thrives in the painted area on both ends of the floor and has excellent mobility, setting high screens and rolling to the basket for layups and dunks or showing out to the three-point line and recovering back to the painted area on defense. He has also developed some moves facing the basket in the low block. A young and developing big man, Valanciunas can still be taken advantage of by more experienced players, but those days are numbered.
Linas Kleiza is Back
When the Toronto Raptors signed Linas Kleiza as a free agent two summers ago, it looked like they had a steal as Kleiza just led Lithuania to an unexpected bronze medal at the FIBA World Championships. Then a knee injury during the NBA preseason led to inconsistent play and eventually season-ending surgery for the 27-year-old. Kleiza didn’t return to action until midway through last season and with the condensed schedule, he was ineffective on short rest with just a tease of his former self appearing periodically.
At the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in July, Kleiza averaged 19.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and looked like he had fully recovered. In his first four games at the Olympics, Kleiza is averaging 18.3 points on 51 percent shooting and 6.3 rebounds. In his best game, he scored 25 points against the U.S.
The mobile and effective Kleiza of two summers ago has been on display again and that is very encouraging news for the Raptors. Kleiza even knocked Nocioni over the scorer’s table during his first game in London. He would say it was an accident, but that was the kind of edge a soft Toronto team needed when they acquired him back in 2010.