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Has Jonas Valanciunas Become Unstoppable This Summer?

Jonas Valanciunas by Robertas Dačkus with permission (3)Jonas Valanciunas has played well for Lithuania this summer and he has been virtually unstoppable when Head Coach Jonas Kazlauskas has directed the offense to run through him.  Lithuania wins games when Kazlauskas goes to Valanciunas in the post and his team often struggles with their offense when he is on the bench.  However, Valanciunas hasn’t received the star treatment a young player at his level might expect in North America.

Valanciunas arrived late to Lithuania’s training camp in August as he was busy winning the NBA Summer League MVP with the Toronto Raptors in July.  Late should be considered an exaggeration, however, as the center arrived ahead of the timeframe agreed to between FIBA and the NBA with respect to players joining their National Teams for the summer.  It was just Lithuania had started their first training camp weeks ahead of that date and Kazlauskas seemed to believe Valanciunas should be rushing over to join them.

A number of European countries take their National Team more seriously than the professional teams many of their players come from.  Obsessive would be an understatement and Lithuania is as passionate about basketball as any country in the world.  Lithuania had scheduled 12 exhibition friendly games in the month prior the start of Eurobasket in September and with Valanciunas not arriving until August, Kazlauskas sat his young center out – DNP-CD – for the first game.

It didn’t exactly set Valanciunas back to not play immediately upon his arrival, his next 11 games were impressive.  Valanciunas averaged 13.2 points, 8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 19.5 minutes in the friendlies.  He had 3 double-doubles, 2 20-point games and shot 68.6 percent from the field.

Based on his play in the friendlies, Valanciunas had earned the right to start at Eurobasket, but Kazlauskas has gone with one of veterans in almost every game.  The coach has concerns about Valanciunas’ experience and defense, however, it has been obvious his young center is well ahead of the veterans on his team at both ends of the court.  Even when Valanciunas isn’t being fed the ball in the post, opposing defenses will not leave him and usually keep 2 defenders in range at all times.  The floor spacing with Valanciunas on the court has been excellent.  At the other end, Valanciunas represents the only real rim protector this team has.  Lithuania’s veterans have experience and know the defensive schemes better, but they haven’t been much of a deterrent in the paint as help-side defenders in most games.

FIBA Europe describes how Lithuania has been passing the torch to Valanciunas.  How Kazlauskas plays the Raptors center significant minutes with lots of touches one game and virtually benches him the next.  Kazlauskas still treats Valanciunas like a raw rookie that needs to be taught a lesson from time-to-time even as the young center’s play has evolved to dominate in the paint when his teammates remember him.

“He’s very positive, he’s a good kid, very talented.  Sometimes, he misses control of the game.  But he’s young.  We are asking from him [things] like he should be 27 or so.  It’s impossible,” Kazlauskas said.

In Lithuania’s preliminary round losses to Serbia (63-56) and to Bosnia and Herzegovnia (78-72) at Eurobasket, Kazlauskas only played Valanciunas 11 and 7 minutes respectively.  Lithuania only advanced to the second round because Bosnia and Herzegovnia needed to beat them by 10 points to win the tie-breaker.  It’s true Lithuania has been asking Valanciunas to perform like a veteran, but it hasn’t looked like it has been impossible.

Through it all, Valanciunas has maintained an outwardly positive attitude.  Even when Kazlauskas has sent him to the bench for a real or perceived mistake on the court, Valanciunas stays involved in the game and actively cheers on his teammates.  Even though he has obviously been his team’s best center and Kazlauskas keeps starting less productive veterans ahead of him, Valanciunas has accepted his role and the often limited minutes he is permitted to play.  It helps that his veterans support him.

“Right now, he’s the main center for us,” said 33-year-old Lithuania center Robertas Javtokas, a veteran of his seventh EuroBasket as well as two World Championships and two Olympics.  “He gives us a lot.  I hope for the next games that he will give us more and more because he’s unstoppable and unbelievable.  I play against him in every practice and I know how it feels.”

In the 5 games at Eurobasket where Kazlauskas has run at least some of his half court offense through Valanciunas, his center is averaging 11.8 points on 75 percent shooting, 8.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 21.6 minutes.  In the three games Valanciunas has been made mostly a spectator, he has 1.3 points on 1.7 shots, 1.7 rebounds and 0.3 blocks in 10.3 minutes and Lithuania’s record is 1 win and 2 losses.

It has appeared that the only thing stopping Valanciunas this summer has been his head coach.

Lithuania is through to the quarter-finals after defeating France, Belgium and the Ukraine in the second round.  They face a surprising Italian National Team on Thursday that is performing above expectations without NBA stars Andrea Bargnani (illness) and Danilo Gallinari (knee).

Lithuania easily defeated Italy 79-63 in August behind 18 points from Linas Kleiza.  Valanciunas had 9 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks in the win.  A win will put Lithuania through to the medal rounds.

Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre.  A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report.  You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors