Yes, it was just an exhibition game. And yes, Team USA’s under-19 squad doesn’t appear to be jam-packed with talent and they’ve reportedly only been able to practice together for a few days. Nevertheless, Lithuania delivered a dominant performance in beating USA 108-75 today, and Jonas Valanciunas was far and away the best player on the court.
Valanciunas led both teams with 23 points and 11 rebounds in 25 minutes, and the most impressive part of his boxscore might be the fact that he went to the free throw line 15 times. His length and activity were too much for the Americans to handle and they frequently had little choice but to foul him when he was battling for rebounds or when he had the ball within a few feet of the basket.
Before I break down the various components of his performance, let’s clear something up right now so that anyone who reads this blog can pass this knowledge onto their Raptors fan friends — we won’t know for a while how Valanciunas will fare in the NBA, but I can state with absolute certainty right now that he is the furthest thing from “soft”. He appears to relish battling for rebounds and playing physical defense, and when he got elbowed in the mouth in the second quarter, he simply checked his Chiclets while he went to the bench with an annoyed look on his face. This “all Euros are soft” meme is beyond ignorant and even if you choose to continue to believe that European players tend to be less tough than their American counterparts, I can assure you this doesn’t apply to Valanciunas. So let’s knock off this ignorant discussion point, shall we?
All right, here’s my breakdown of his performance for those of you who weren’t able to watch the grainy feed online.
- Ten of Valanciunas’ 11 field goal attempts came within the key, so it’s evident that he’s most comfortable trying to score in the post. His single mid-range jumper came on a wide-open look from about 18 feet out and he drained it.
- While he scored a couple of his field goals off post moves, his overall post game seems pretty unpolished. He doesn’t appear to be a “go-to guy” you can simply feed the ball to down low and expect him to make things happen consistently.
- He sets picks willingly, but he showed a tendency to release too early to roll to the basket.
- Since he usually had the ball close to the basket and the American defenders couldn’t do much to stop him, I didn’t really get a sense of how good of a passer he is because he didn’t pass the ball much.
- He had an off-game at the free throw line by his standards in missing four of his 15 free throw attempts. Of course, I’ll take that kind of “off-game” from most big men, and Valanciunas looked extremely comfortable at the charity stripe with a smooth shooting stroke.
Valanciunas led the Euroleague in rebound percentage (the percentage of available rebounds grabbed by a player while he’s on the floor) this season and it’s not hard to see why. He uses his length, athleticism and toughness to create space and get in the right position for rebounds, and he showcased an ability to fight off multiple opponents and tip the ball to himself when required. For all the question marks about how his game will translate to the NBA, I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t average 10 rebounds if and when he’s playing 30 minutes per game.
- It’s just one exhibition game, but Valanciunas doesn’t strike me as the kind of player who flies all over the court swatting shot attempts. Today, he was more of a “shot-botherer” than a shot blocker (although he did have one impressive stuff on a USA fast break) and American players frequently had a tough time making shots inside while Jonas was on duty.
- One area where the frequent comparisons to Tyson Chandler made sense was Valanciunas’ ability and willingness to guard perimeter players and effectively use his length on switches. He’s obviously not as strong as Chandler (yet), but the potential to be a similar defensive force is there.
- His lack of strength wasn’t really a factor in this game because the Americans don’t appear to be a bruising team. As I mentioned, they were clearly flustered by his length and didn’t make much of an effort to body him up in the post.
- Did I mention he’s not soft? He demonstrated more than once that he’s not afraid to give out a hard foul if it means preventing an easy basket. He collected three personal fouls in 25 minutes, and it will be interesting to watch throughout the rest of the tournament if he can stay out of foul trouble while continuing to be an active defensive presence.
That’s about all that comes to mind based on what I witnessed today from the Raptors’ newest prospect. Lithuania’s next game is against Croatia on Thursday at 1:30 p.m. ET when the FIBA U19 World Championship officially kicks off. I probably won’t write a blog post for every one of Valanciunas’ games in the tournament, but I will provide running commentary on Twitter @scottcarefoot for every game I’m able to watch.