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From Question Mark to Exclamation Point: Jonas Valanciunas

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His name is Jonas ValanciunasNBA: Washington Wizards at Toronto Raptors

From the Land of Sabonis and Zydrunas

Lithuania, like Linas and Sarunas

Won’t see him in no commercial eating Noodles

Viscous, like a lion, eating a poodle

Jump shot, so much sweeter, than apple strudel

Doubt him, I dare you,  Now that’d be foolish

Valanciunas in Toronto on some new sh*t

Drafted fifth overall, stands seven feet tall

Val-Nasty is the king, he’s the ruler of them all

His name is Jonas Valanciunas.

The Toronto Raptors have been at war for quite some time now, needing all the support they can get to protect home base. To prevent any further damage they drafted the seven-foot soldier Jonas Valanciunas 5th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. This was prior to the lockout shortened season where there  many questions surrounded the direction of the organization. Valanciunas had to negotiate a buyout, while the Toronto Raptors; desperate to stop the bleeding MLSE and Bryan Colangelo relieved Jay Triano of his duties a month before the draft (he stuck around to be a consultant of sorts, hmm). The consensus after drafting this seven-foot European was here we go again, another Bryan Colangelo mistake. That was because no one knew about this young Lithuanian player who was picked ahead of the sexy names in the draft like Brandon Knight and Kemba Walker. Since he was seven feet tall and European much like another high Colangelo pick, instant comparisons were made. Very wiry and very energetic, that’s all anyone knew about Jonas.His lack of exposure in North America had not only Raptors fans, but NBA fans jump quickly to YouTube for a better idea about what this young Lithuanian had to bring.

So, in his red and white Raptors hat, with his broken English, huge smile and green tie, Jonas Valanciunas knew he had finally arrived in the NBA. We may not have even known it then, but on draft night 2011, Jonas did.

Although Raptor fans had to wait a season for his arrival, his accolades overseas only made him all the more intriguing as a prospect.  Valanciunas was a winner, in a very big way. He was the MVP of the LKL (Lithuanian Basketball League) – the most elite league in Lithuania. Jonas was also an All Eurocup First team selection, Eurocup Rising star, back-to-back FIBA European Young Player of the Year. Two-time; two-time! Lithuanian Basketball Player of the year. Three times a LKL All-Star and two times an All-Star MVP. Jonas earned the FIBA European Championship MVP at 16 & 18, and at 19 years old he won the FIBA World Championship MVP. Just to top it off, Valanciunas earned a spot on the Lithuanian Men’s senior national team who competed in the London 2012 Olympic games.

Might as well throw in that when he finally did make it to the NBA, against the best players in the world he to hustled his way onto the NBA All-Rookie Second (Bargnani was on the first, and second in ROY voting, just saying). Sprinkle in a NBA Rookie of the Month award for the month of March and we have ourselves a winner right there ladies and gentleman! Keep in mind that this was all under an injury riddle, minute-limiting season (thank you Casey).

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Toronto RaptorsJump to the first day of Raptors 2012-2013 training camp, Valanciunas in his first interview after a workout with the Toronto Raptors says he wants Dwight Howard. Surprisingly enough, he eventually got him. A lot of people who saw the training camp footage probably thought the kid was out of his mind, but I’m telling you: he was for real. If you heard him with the same sincerity and the same conviction that I did, you’d believe him right then and there. So it’d take some warming up.

Coming into a grind-house Dwane Casey system, was sure to be tough for the rookie especially after the witnessed defensive improvements the team made after their first season under his tenure. A focused mentality was essential for Jonas’ early development. In Lithuania he was a star, but when elevated to the elite professional level he turned into an extremely efficient role player, almost robotic in that sense. Programmed to pick and roll and play defense. A perfect fit for the Toronto Raptors who were still developing the roster, with many moves still to be made regarding the rebuild.

Good move Colangelo, that’s why you’re still the President.

On the court Jonas is never arrogant, but still has a bit of cockiness and attitude. His edgy attitude is welcome here in Toronto, especially coming from a hard-working player such as Valanciunas. Somebody who won’t take any BS is much needed on this roster, and it was a refreshing sight to see JV stand up for his teammates.

Valanciunas averaged 8.9 points 6 rebounds in 23 minutes per game while almost missing two months of action.  This includes games where Casey barely played him.These rookie season statistics are merely a sample size of what’s yet to come. There is new management in Toronto, and Tim Leiweke will not deny talent. Casey will have to play Valanciunas this season.  To develop Jonas needs consistent minutes, in games that mean something to both the Toronto Raptors and their fans all season long. The late season playing time of Jonas was merely the result of the Raptors sorry losing record; which is terribly unfortunate. However it was still a nice consolation prize barring the circumstances.

The 2013-2014 NBA season for the Toronto Raptors says Jonas Valanciunas all over it. You thought the emergence of Amir Johnson was something extraordinary, you better hold on for this guy. The man plays like a a legit seven footer, and is only getting stronger. On offence, all season long: pick and roll, pick and roll. Everybody knew it was coming, regardless of if he got the ball or not because that’s what he did. The most essential play in basketball was Valanciunas’ forte. He knew his role all too well, and then it expanded.

When it comes to critiquing his game in a negative light, he does so many things well on the basketball court, that it’s hard to get mad when he makes a mistake. It’s either because we suffer from Jonas withdrawal at times because of rotations or his mistakes are always with 100% effort; and you can’t necessarily fault the kid. He’s a rookie so these mistakes were more than expected. Forget about being great- as he gains more experience and bulks up, Valanciunas  has the potential to be a phenomenal, all-star caliber player,.

What’s going to set Jonas apart from every big man in the league are his attention fundamentals and his high basketball IQ. I’d put his basketball IQ on par with the likes of Joakim Noah, but at a faster developing rate, with a much larger return. As I mentioned before, it’s the little things that matter to him, so he sets good off & on-ball screens, he’s vocal on both ends of the floor which is essential for anchoring a defense, he keeps the ball high when catching a pass, has a relentless motor and simply knows his role at all times. These are the things that will ultimately set Jonas Valanciunas apart from the rest of his draft class and the rest of the league one day.

Offensively, at times it seemed like the only thing Valanciunas wanted to do was dunk the ball. What hasn’t been revealed in full yet is his jump shot. He has been a 75% free throw shooter his entire playing career, with numbers only getting better with age. When he becomes confident, his shot will be respected at all times (think about an old Zydrunas Ilgauskas …but much younger).  So the day when Valanciunas was allowed to leave the paint and step it out throw in a little pump fake dribble and go to the rim, everything changed from that moment on. That moved developed a running hook that always seems to drop, the quickness combined with the attacking mentality of Jonas kept bigger and slower defenders at protecting the paint. He will not turn into a jump-shooting centre, what he will become is something even more captivating: a centre that can shoot.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors

The evolution of Val-Nasty next season will definitely be something spectacular to watch. Have confidence in Valanciunas because he is a very smart and very gifted basketball player. He knows his role and more importantly, knows how to respond when given that role. Jonas is a player that does what he’s asked and will do what he’s asked. Jonas Valanciunas can do it all, in Lithuania he was once a wizard; but here in Toronto he’s a soldier.


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