Jonas Valanciunas

It’s amazing what a week and change can do. A little perspective, and the time to dig deeper and do some more research can make a world of difference. I’m talking, of course, about my thoughts on the Toronto Raptors selecting Jonas Valanciunas with the 5th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.

While the pick wasn’t a shock once I took a moment to consider that the team hadn’t expected him to fall past Cleveland’s fourth selection, in the moment it was announced, it was everything I wasn’t expecting. With lots of talk about Brandon Knight, Kawhi Leonard and Bismack Biyombo, I thought the team would be taking a player I had researched thoroughly, interviewed or had spoken to scouts about. Instead, I got a 19 year-old whose only takeaway from the media session held the day before the draft was how skinny he was. Awesome, right?

I wasn’t thrilled. I was…Nervous. Not as a writer, because whether the pick was a steal or a disaster, I’d have things to write about, but as a person who has come to know and appreciate how passionate all Raptors fans are about their team. Listening to them in the stands, in the hallways of the Air Canada Centre during games, seeing the tweets and @ replies, reading the emails from them, they really, desperately wanted a player to be excited about. With the way the previous two seasons had gone, who could blame them?

And so, I cringed for them. I was hesitant with them. I was unsure right alongside of them. That is, until the responses started coming in from some of those same scouts and front office people I’d spoken to leading up to the draft. The responses –and no, not all of the people were from the Raptors camp– were all the same: Jonas Valanciunas is a stud. He’s nothing like Andrea Bargnani. He’s tough. The positive words went on and on. Enough to make me feel better. Enough to make me calm down and realize that the Raptors did what any team says they’ll do when a prospect who isn’t expected to be available is suddenly still on the board when their five minutes to make a selection begins: They chose who they felt was the best player available. Just as they had with Ed Davis a year earlier, when Davis had inexplicably fell to 13th.

After watching Youtube clips, reading articles and recently being able to track and watch Valanciunas in the FIBA Under-19 Tournament in Latvia, it all makes sense. This kid, he can play. And he wants to play. He wants the ball, he wants to play defence, he wants to block shots and rebound, follow the loose ball wherever it takes him. He wants to dunk the ball, to scream, to foul his opponents so hard they’ll think twice about coming at him again (something that, while I love the passion, makes me wonder if he’ll be plagued with foul trouble when he is finally in a Raptors uniform), to prove he belongs in the NBA, playing against the best of the best. I was told he’s got a bit of an edge to him when he talks about competition, a fire that you can’t teach.

After Lithuania’s 107-105 loss to the USA this morning, USA coach Paul Hewitt had this to say about Valanciunas: “After the game, he was so upset he was crying and punching walls. And then this:He’s the real deal. I love his competitiveness. He went Rambo on us in the second half.” (via @DrewEbanks).

Without needlessly throwing anyone under the bus, there are players on the Raptors current roster who would never receive praise like this.

In short: I’m excited. I’m so excited to see this young, hungry, player who wants so badly to play under the bright lights of the NBA. Of course, with this excitement, comes the news that Valanciunas won’t be here in Toronto for another season, but at this point, that’s cool. Let him get bigger, stronger and a year older. Hopefully we’ll have a season to watch the rest of the Raptors roster develop while he does his thing overseas, but if not, we’ll be eagerly awaiting his debut and tracking his progress next season. The Jonas Valanciunas hype-machine has been turned on and set to high and I don’t expect it to be dialed down anytime soon.

As of today, Valancuinas might just be named the MVP of the Under-19 World Championship. He’s currently leading in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots with 21.4 points, 13.4 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game. This is impressive stuff, even if it is against under-19 competition. Also, check out this great shot from Scott Carefoot’s Twitter of Valanciunas blocking Canadian Sim Bhullar. Pretty sweet.

Get excited, Raptors fans. It’s okay. If we’re let down, we’re let down. I don’t think this guy is going to let us down because of a lack of effort or pride. I’m jumping on the bandwagon. Join me, why don’t you?