Valanciunas’ European Experience Shows
At just 20 years old, no one is going to mistake Jonas Valanciunas of the Toronto Raptors for anything but a rookie. However, the young seven-footer arrived in the NBA after several seasons of playing professional basketball in Europe and there should be little doubt that this experience has helped advance his development.
“Not a lot of experience, but I have some experience playing overseas,” Valanciunas said. “Comparing Europe to the NBA, it is a different level, but basketball is still basketball. I have some kind of experience and I think it is going to help me.”
The style and level of play in Europe is different, but Valanciunas did still benefit from the experience of playing as a professional, which is dramatically different than what college players go through. As a national hero in Lithuania, Valanciunas has also been through the distractions of increased celebrity.
“You don’t have to worry about class, eligibility, all the extra stuff that comes with being a college student,” Aaron Gray explained. “Now you go from being a young man to being a man and it’s definitely a transition. But at the same time, with more responsibility there’s almost less responsibility just in the fact all you have to focus on is basketball. There are many more distractions. Money, lifestyle, especially your first few years you really have to get into routines that are going to put you in the position to be successful in the future. A lot of guys have done it and Jonas is one of them.”
The European experience was Valanciunas’ proving ground and he took full advantage of playing against other professional basketball players including some former NBA players. Last season included a couple of games against top ranked CKSA Moscow, which featured former NBA center Nenad Krstic at center and current NBA player Andrei Kirilenko at power forward.
“They are high-level players and from that kind of game you take as much as you can, learn as much as you can from your opponent,” Valanciunas said. “Nenad Krstic is one of the greatest centers in Europe and I was just trying to learn moves from him, what he’s doing and how he reacts.”
While no college player will have a faced an experienced veteran center like Krstic, the example provides a good illustration of the adjustments Valanciunas will have to make to be successful in the NBA.
“It is different, the NBA game different,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “A guy like [Roy] Hibbert is different. A guy like Dwight Howard is different than Krstic. A guy like Krstic is more of a stand still shooter and Kirilenko is more of a three/four. [Andrew] Bynum would be a better judge when he gets back and Hibbert tonight [in the home opener] are more of the prototypical big men that he is going to have to get used to. European centers are more shooters than in the NBA, so that’s the adjustment he’ll have to make.”
Part of the reason Valanciunas earned the starting job in Toronto as a rookie is because he has the attitude and demeanor of a professional athlete. In addition to his obvious physical gifts, Valanciunas is coachable and a quick learner. Gray has five years of NBA experience and he has needed all of that to keep up with the rookie.
“[Valanciunas] is good, man,” Gray said. “I think the only reason I had a little success [in scrimmages] is because I have seen him every day and have been going up against him. I think he is going to give other centers in the league fits. I think he is going to be great for this team in the future. He was so far behind because he came from a European style of basketball and English is his second language. He has done a good job of just fitting in, really working hard and just trying to learn as much as possible each day.”
“I know [Valanciunas] will play hard and he will make some hard mistakes,” Casey said. “I expect that. The only way he is going to learn is to cut your teeth. It is tough that you have to cut your teeth against a guy like Hibbert, one of the top centers and big men in the league, but it is the only way you are going to do it.”
In the home opener against the Indiana Pacers, Valanciunas started at center against Hibbert and recorded an impressive double-double of 12 points, 10 rebounds and a block in 23 minutes. With that said, Hibbert had his way with the rookie early on, opening the game going 4-6 from the field in the first quarter and leading the Pacers in scoring with 14 at the half. After halftime, Valanciunas made adjustments and held the All-Star center to 0-4 shooting in the third quarter. Hibbert didn’t score another basket after the half.
“I thought [Valancuinas] made great adjustments in the second half,” Casey said. “The first half was a learning experience for him. Hibbert had his way a little bit, but he made adjustments and made Hibbert work in the second half. He did an excellent job against him and I am proud of the way he played.”
“I am trying to learn from my mistakes,” Valanciunas said. “Coach gave me some advice on how to defend Hibbert and it worked.”
“He is a good player,” Hibbert said of Valanciunas. “Physical. I felt like I held my own. Shots in the second half didn’t go in for me. He scored a lot off of cuts and rebounds. He is going to have a bright future.”
Hibbert represents one of the toughest challenges Valanciunas will face at his position in the Eastern Conference. The early results suggest Valanciunas was ready for the test, but perhaps more importantly, he was able to take his coach’s advice during the game to make an impact on the court. At the very least, playing in Europe has helped Valanciunas develop the professional attitude required to make his transition to the NBA a smooth and quick one.