Lithuania’s Head Coach Jonas Kazlauskas seems very unhappy with the Toronto Raptors these days over the delay in allowing star center Jonas Valanciunas to join his National teammates this summer. Kazlauskas called the Raptors ‘arrogant’ in a recent article by John Miklovas in Basketnews.lt and complained about Toronto not encouraging Valanciunas to join his National team earlier than five weeks ahead of the start of Eurobasket 2013 on September 4th in Solvenia.
Aside from the minor detail that Eurobasket 2013 is still 40 days away and the Lithuanian National team program had access to Valanciunas for the entire summer prior to the young center’s NBA rookie season, including last year’s NBA Summer League. The real complaint seems to be Valanciunas was spending any time with his NBA team at Summer League in Las Vegas this year instead of arriving early to join his National teammates back home. There was no acknowledgement from Kazlauskas that Toronto had held Valanciunas back from playing in Raptors’ final Summer League game so the young player could rest and recover before joining his National team.
Star players from countries outside of the United States often feel immense pressure to play for their National team and that pressure can run into extremes as evidenced by Coach Kazlauskas. However, excessive demands are often not in the best interests of the player or his career.
The NBA style of play is not the same as in Europe and although Valanciunas has enjoyed success at every level overseas, he is still learning the NBA game. Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey needed Valanciunas to get the extra practice and experience that the NBA summer League provides.
“In Summer League, not so much scoring, but learning to play against athleticism, speed and quickness,” Casey said. “Teams are going to run quick plays where he is going to have to make quick decisions. Even though he is going on to play for his National team, (Summer League) was more of an NBA style of talent and that is his biggest challenge. He has a good rhythm against a European style of basketball player, no disrespect because there is a very good style of basketball being played there, but there is a difference when you are going against a 6’8, 6’9 quick jumping, quick-twitch type of player.”
“(Last year) We threw him out there to the wolves early and he wasn’t ready and no disrespect to Jonas, there is a learning curve anytime you step into the NBA. There is a lot to learn. Not only the one-on-one, but the speed and quickness and the rhythm of the NBA game coming from the Euro-League, there is a learning curve and he had to go through it. Going into (last) season, we had to get this young man ready and at the same time it did cost us a few games early. After he got a feel for the NBA game, he improved as a player.”
With no Summer League games to practice in last summer, Valanciunas had to learn the nuances of the NBA game on the job. As important as playing for one’s National team is, missing those opportunities to practice and play for the Raptors last summer hurt the young center as he was launching his NBA career. Although he made great progress by the end of last season and dominated during this year’s Summer League, Casey is quick to point out Valanciunas isn’t finished learning how to play in the NBA yet. The Raptors plan on continuing to touch base with Valanciunas while he is with his National team and right up until training camp opens in October.
“He is not a finished product yet,” Casey said. “There is a lot he has to learn. Lot of things he will have to go through to be one of the top tier centers in the league, but he is on a great path for getting there.”
It is discouraging to read about a National team coach putting his own short term program’s interests ahead of his players’ professional careers. While National pride is understandable, Valanciunas is barely 21-years-old and could be representing his home country for the next decade or longer.
It is at least as important that his NBA career gets off to a good start as anything Valanciunas might help Lithuania accomplish at Eurobasket this summer. He will be joining his National team well before Eurobasket starts and the young center doesn’t need any unnecessary extra pressure from Kazlauskas.
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