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NBA AM: Time to Test Valanciunas
Posted By Alex Raskin On August 31, 2011 @ 9:26 am In All,Main Page,NBA | No Comments
It has to be hard for Raptors fans to be patient. The franchise has spent over a decade trying to put multiple stars on the floor at once, only to see one premiere talent leave before the next one has been properly groomed.
Tracy McGrady left for Orlando in a sign-and-trade deal in 2000 just after he and second cousin Vince Carter pushed Toronto to its first playoff appearance in franchise history. Carter was gone by December of 2004, just as second-year power forward Chris Bosh was turning himself into a consistent double-double threat. And by the time former first-overall pick Andrea Bargnani was ready to become a consistent 20 PPG scorer, Bosh was forming his own dream town down in Miami.
Now, with Bargnani signed through 2014-2015 (he does have an early-termination option for that season), it’s fifth-overall pick Jonas Valanciunas’ turn to end the cycle. President and general manager Bryan Colangelo made the tactful decision to draft the 7-foot Lithuanian despite a murky buyout situation with Lietuvos Rytas (he can join the Raptors in 2012-2013 once his $2.5 million buyout is paid). Obviously it’s a lot to ask of a fan base to wait an entire season for the arrival of a first-round pick, but the ongoing lockout might make that point completely moot. In fact, Valanciunas has an edge on American rookies, who won’t be playing any competitive basketball in 2011-2012 unless the work stoppage ends. Players like Kyrie Irving and Brandon Knight can only work out with private trainers—and will be praying they don’t injure themselves before signing their first NBA deal—while Valanciunas is ready to compete against top professional talent in EuroBasket, which begins today.
Lithuania, which is hosting this year’s tournament, is in the “Group of Death” (Group A) with Spain, Turkey, Poland, Great Britain and Portugal. That might not be good for fans of the red, green and yellow, but Raptors supporters should eagerly anticipate the first great test of Valanciunas’ career.
Obviously he shined during the U-19 FIBA Championships, where he pushed Lithuania to gold while earning MVP and leading the tournament in points, rebounds and blocks. But outside of Brazil’s Lucas Noguiera, an unpolished but athletic young center, and America’s Patric Young, the tournament was void of any reputable big man for Valanciunas to battle in the post.
That won’t be the case in Group A, where he’ll face Spain’s Serge Ibaka, Marc and Pau Gasol and Portland Trail Blazers draft pick Victor Claver as well as Turkey’s Omer Asik, Ersan Ilyasova, Enes Kanter and Hedo Turkoglu. If and when Lithuania moves into the single-elimination portion of the tournament, European bigs like Germany’s Chris Kaman (ok, he’s from Grand Rapids), Italy’s Bargnani, France’s Boris Diaw, Russia’s Timofey Mozgov, Ukraine’s Kyrylo Fesenko and Georgia’s Zaza Pachulia will be lurking.
Lithuania’s first two games come against Great Britain and a Marcin Gortat-less Poland squad, so Valanciunas will get his first major test Friday against Turkey. Then, on Sunday, Lithuania takes on Spain, the world’s second-ranked team, in the most-anticipated game of the group stage.
Valanciunas likely won’t have a 30-point game or a two-five block nights, as he did in the U-19s, but he’s also going to get the experience of playing with and against NBA talent. Teammates Sarunas Jasikevicius and Darius Songaila have played in the NBA (and, oddly enough, both played college basketball in the ACC) while Marijonas Petravicius, who will soon be teaming with Deron Williams for Istabul’s Besiktas, remains one of the more reliable centers in Europe. Obviously Lithuania isn’t the favorite—the team hasn’t won a tournament since 2003 (European Championships) and finished third at both the 2007 EuroBasket and 2010 FIBA World Championships—but that should work to Valanciunas’ favor. Lithuania will definitely need his size, and without a glut of centers like Turkey or Spain, the 19-year-old big man should be able to get plenty of playing time.
Raptors fans, it isn’t the Air Canada Centre and he’s still not technically on Toronto’s roster, but for the next few weeks your patience will be rewarded as Valanciunas tests himself at EuroBasket.
Stephen Curry Isn’t Bored
Most NBA players are working diligently to find something to do during the lockout, but Golden State’s Stephen Curry is just hoping to find some free time. According to San Francisco Chronicle beat writer Rusty Simmons, Curry got hitched last month (to his college sweetheart at his childhood church) before jetting off to Bora Bora for a 10-day honeymoon. When Curry returned to the States, he resumed classes at Davidson College in an attempt to complete his sociology degree while also assisting coach Bob McKillop with the Wildcats basketball team by giving players one-on-one instructions.
Up next, Curry will be in a pro-am golf tournament in Atlanta next month, host a charity golf event in San Francisco the following week and set up some practice sessions for he and his locked out teammates.
“I’m used to kicking it into high gear with workouts and focus on the season,” Curry told Simmons. “I’m being optimistic about the season and hoping for the best, but you have to prepare for the lockout continuing, too.”
Curry’s Sept. 26 charity golf event was put together with ThanksUSA, which is a group that helps military families with college tuition.
“I don’t come from a military family, but I deeply respect what they do,” Curry said. “This is (a) small gesture to show them how much we appreciate what they do.”
Warriors forward David Lee will be playing in the event and teammates Monta Ellis and Dorell Wright might be there as well.
As for Curry’s problematic right ankle, he had surgery in May and thinks he’ll be healthy for some team practices in Southern California in the next few weeks.
“I’m taking baby steps toward getting back to five-on-five action,” Curry said. “I could have probably played on it the way it was, but I would have been in jeopardy of having more serious injuries down the road.”
DeJaun Blair to Russia?
Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski took to his Twitter account to break some news on Spurs power forward DeJuan Blair:
“Spurs forward Dejuan (sic) Blair is engaged in serious talks to play in Russia during NBA lockout, sources tell Y! Deal could be struck this week.”
Spurs fans should definitely be encouraged by news like that. Blair battled weight issues before being drafted by the Spurs and any prolonged work stoppage threatened to undo all of the extensive conditioning he’s put himself through. If Blair can stay active in Europe, biding his time until the lockout ends, he could return to the Spurs in as good or better shape than when he last left.
In Case You Missed It
Wilson Chandler and Earl Clark might not be the only NBA stars going to China. 76ers forward Thaddeus Young’s agent Jim Tanner told HoopsHype’s Jorge Sierra that the CBA has come calling for the restricted free agent.
“I have been contacted by multiple teams in China expressing very serious interest in having Thaddeus Young play in their league this season,” Tanner told Sierra. “I have discussed this with Thad and he is intrigued by the possibility of playing in China if the lockout continues and has asked me to further explore these opportunities. At this point, our conversation with the teams have been preliminary but we are continuing to talk and to do our due diligence on each option.”
If Young were to sign in China, he could not return to the NBA until his contract ended, as the CBA is not offering opt-out clauses.
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