The advice to Jonas Valanciunas from Rudy Gay is simple enough.
“I just tell him be himself,” Gay said. “Dominate. Be the best big player on the court. Be the best big man on the court.
“Be the person we all know you can be and it‘ll be easy.”
Gay is wrong on one count. It won’t be easy. Wrestling big men such as Indiana’s Roy Hibbert or the Nets’ Brook Lopez will never be easy. Never mind that Valanciunas, a Lithuanian who did not play college ball in the U.S., has less experience than a comparable North American at surviving the trench warfare that is life in the paint.
But it’s a measure of the confidence Valanciunas inspires that Gay, who played in Memphis with accomplished big men such as Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, thinks Valanciunas can be a great big.
There is with Valanciunas a temptation toward hyperbole. Drafted fifth overall in 2011, Valanciunas endured the tough nights that await every NBA rookie but improved dramatically later in the season (see chart).
Valanciunas boasts excellent athleticism and boundless energy. In one year he added about 20 pounds of muscle to his once-thin frame and now weighs in at seven-feet, 262 pounds. That’s 13 pounds less than the listed weight for Lopez and 28 less than Hibbert but the fact that he has managed to dramatically change his body speaks to Valanciunas’ work ethic.
“I spent a lot of time in lifting room, trying to get bigger and stronger,” Valanciunas said.
“We have to figure out the right weight for him,” said Raptors GM Masai Ujiri. “He’ll figure that out too but he’s done a really good job in developing his body and his game.”
The extra heft means Valanciunas has a better chance of holding his position and since he has not yet developed a complete offensive arsenal, proximity to the basket is essential. Valanciunas has worked out extensively with former Raptor bruiser Jamal Magloire .
“I worked on a lot of post moves, a lot of big man stuff,” Valanciunas said. “That’s what I tried to get better on.”
The Raptors face an interesting balancing act with Valanciunas. For coach Dwane Casey and Ujiri, veterans Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are the key figures in the team’s fortunes.
That makes sense. Those players have a combined 19 years of NBA experience and while Raptor officials are counting on big seasons from the three they have an excellent idea what those players can provide.
What they can’t forecast is the impact of a young centre gamboling around the court. BasketballReference.com used a mathematical formula to project 14 points and nine rebounds a night for Valanciunas.
Patience, Casey said.
“He’s still nowhere near a finished product but the key thing is he’s recognizing some things he didn’t when he started last season,” he said.
“The key is pick and roll situations, he’s recognizing that better. He knows his rotation. He’s trusting the guys behind him. He’s learning to stay down on pump fakes and defending those smaller guards when they turn the corner on him.”
Valanciunas said he is happy to have his rookie season behind him.
“Now I know the players and what the game is like in the NBA,” he said. “I know much more things than I knew last year.”
Valanciunas agreed that his lack of experience with North American basketball made the transition a little harder. As Casey said, “I doubt they have guys like (Cleveland’s all-star guard) Kyrie Irving to play against after school in Lithuania.”
Combine that with all the cultural adjustments (Valanciunas’ English has improved dramatically) and you have a player itching for his sophomore season.
“I’m used to European basketball so for me it was a little harder to be a rookie here,” Valanciunas said. “I was far, far away from my home. Now I’m much more comfortable. I know how it feels to play in the NBA. I can focus just on basketball.”
Per Game, Rookies
|PLAYER||AGE||GAMES||STARTS||MINS||OFF. REBS.||DEF. REBS.||TOTAL REBS.||PTS.|
Jonas Valanciunas 2012/13 Stats
|First 10 games||46.2||5.1||76.2||7.6|
|Last 10 games||56.0||5.0||83.8||12.6|