It is past midnight in Lithuania but Alex Dzikic is still up.
The coach of Lietuvos Rytas in Vilnius (metropolitan population 850,000) is happy to accommodate a reporter’s call from North America.
“Anytime,” he says. “Call anytime.”
Dzikic is a 40-year-old Serb and a key figure in the aspirations of the Toronto Raptors. He is not on the Raps’ payroll. That doesn’t mean his work won’t benefit the NBA team.
Dzikic is nursing 19-year-old Jonas Valanciunas through the season that includes play in the Lithuanian league, the VTB United League as well as Eurocup play. He is also someone with whom Raps coach Dwane Casey shares a marker.
As a head man with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2005, Casey made Dzikic an assistant coach. It was the first time someone with no previous experience in U.S. basketball, college or pro, had been given a sideline seat in the NBA.
Casey lasted just a year and a half with the Wolves before he was fired. Dzikic returned to Europe after two seasons in North America but the letters NBA on his coaching resume gave him cachet. He has been upwardly mobile in European basketball and coached in Slovenia as well as for the Serbian under-20 team before landing the prestigious spot with Rytas.
“Dwane was the guy who gave me the chance in American basketball,” Dzikic said. “I could easily say he is one of the best friends I have in basketball. We try to talk as much as possible but with our teams’ schedules it’s not that easy. We do email a lot. I follow the Raptors and obviously, he follows us as well.”
Dzikic takes the job of grooming Valanciunas very seriously.
“I’m preparing Jonas for him and for my team but the chance that Dwane gave me to be in the NBA is something that I will never be able to pay back. I don’t feel extra pressure in that but I want to do well for all those reasons.”
Valanciunas has been a sensation this season. He led Lithuania to a gold medal in the FIBA under-19 championships and earned the tournament’s MVP award. Valanciunas was a rotation player for the national men’s team and will represent his country this summer at the Olympic qualifiers.
Valanciunas has averaged 7.7 points and 5.8 rebounds a night with Rytas and has built on the elements that prompted the Raptors to draft him fifth overall this summer.
“He was not expected to play a role with the senior team, but Jonas was a significant factor for a team that can still qualify for the Olympics,” said Raptors’ vice-president of international scouting Maurizio Gherardini a few hours after having dinner with Valanciunas in Vilnius. “He has been a real surprise. Not many people thought a 19-year-old player would have this kind of an impact.”
Valanciunas has to grow into his body. He can’t yet express himself with any confidence in English. But aside from his physical attributes — a fluid stride and dexterous touch for a seven-footer with unlimited energy in the paint — what sets Valanciunas apart is his heart.
“He is a very aggressive player,” said Gherardini. “Jonas is very hungry, very positive. You notice the physical assets but you are struck by the degree of focus from such a young man.”
“Now he has to learn the techniques of the game.”
Valanciunas’ competetiveness means he is prone to foul trouble. His passing abilities are undeveloped. Valanciunas’ mid-range jump shot is still a work in progress but his athleticism and motor are way above grade for a 19-year-old. He is a startling 70.8 per cent shooter who averages 88.5 per cent from the free-throw line. He can run and he can dunk.
“The big thing for Jonas is he has to understand what kind of man he wants to be, what type of body he needs for the NBA game,” said Dzikic. “Next year he will probably play some decent minutes but obviously there will be things he needs to improve.”
Dzikic and Casey share the same defence-first philosophy. “I think he will help the Raptors more defensively in the beginning, but learning the defensive part of the game instead of always worrying about offence is the right way to do it,” said Dzikic. “That means accepting your role and doing your job on defence.”