Watching how Lithuania uses the Toronto Raptors starting center Jonas Valanciunas in international events leads one to wonder if the big man is getting anything out of the commitment to his National Team beyond avoiding bad press in his basketball crazed home Country. Anyone would be hard pressed to suggest he returns to his paying job in the NBA showing any signs of improvement after a summer of playing for Lithuania head coach Jonas Kazlaukas.
Valanciunas is the most talented player on his National Team and has been for several years, but Kazlaukas still has him on a short leash despite his obvious contributions every summer since he played for Lithuania in both the 2011 FIBA U19 World Championship and the 2011 Eurobasket.
As the expression goes, if you want your center to stay engaged, you got to “let the big dog eat,” at the offensive end of the court. Valanciunas was starving during this summer’s Olympics.
Except for the final pool game against Croatia (that there were rumblings Lithuania had thrown in order to get a better quarter final seeding), Valanciunas averaged 22.2 minutes of playing time and 5.2 shot attempts. As has so often been the case in previous summers, Lithuania either couldn’t or didn’t bother trying to feed their “big dog” in the post and just maybe that explains why Valanciunas couldn’t seem to get his head into the game.
“I was pretty bad, you know,” Valanciunas admitted on FIBA.com. “I’ve got to do something to my head.”
When asked in the press conference why Valanciunas had struggled in this tournament – he went into Wednesday’s game averaging 7.0 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, Lithuania coach Jonas Kazlauskas responded: “You have to ask Valanciunas, not me.”
It’s not that Lithuania should be anguishing as much as they appear to be over their quarter final exit at the Olympics. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Spain blew them out in pool play, Spain easily beat them last summer as well. In the quarter final game, the Australians far superior guard play led by NBAers Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills wasn’t something Lithuania should have been expected to have an answer for. Guard play has always been a concern once Lithuania gets deeper into tournaments and Australia has their own star NBA center in Andrew Bogut.
Lithuanian success in international tournaments isn’t much of a concern back in Toronto (beyond the local Lithuanian nationals.) The goal of every young professional athlete is to take advantage of the off season to work on their game and return better than when their season ended. FIBA basketball, especially for big men, doesn’t necessarily accomplish this.
In prior summers Valanciunas has admitted it takes time to re-adjust to FIBA rules. No three-second call on defenders gets Valanciunas yelled at for moving in and out of the paint on defense like he’s required to in the NBA. Playing the ball off the rim as a legal move. Even all the clutching and grabbing often (albeit inconsistently) overlooked in the paint beyond anything seen in the NBA. FIBA basketball has different rules, is played differently and officiated differently. It doesn’t help Valanciunas that his European head coach isn’t interested in doing anything that might help his center add skills that could be useful in an NBA game.
If anything, what can be observed is Valanciunas having outstanding breakout NBA playoff series in each of the past three years only to return after a summer of playing for Lithuania looking like he forgot everything he’d done well at the end of the previous NBA season.
Valanciunas isn’t about to decline an invitation to play for Lithuania in the futre and even Kazlaukas admits eventually he’ll have to turn the reins over to his star player (What has he been waiting for?), but his call for Valanciunas to stop just playing off his superior talent belies the fact the coach has yet to adjust his own (unsuccessful) game strategy and stopped trying force-fit Valanciunas into how he wants to see the game played. The player has to get something out of his commitment to the team as well.
The scary thing from a Toronto standpoint is Kazlaukas doesn’t see himself as part of the problem. He will keep trying to change Valanciunas from an NBA center into his vision of a FIBA center every summer and he’ll likely keep him on a short leash until his center can figure out how to be both. In the meantime Valanciunas’ progress in the off season will continue to stall or even take a step back and that isn’t good for anybody.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.