Today’s gold medal game between Lithuania and Serbia was fast-paced, chippy, and very entertaining. But Lithuania was the best team and they had the best player in the tournament, so they triumphed with an 85-67 victory. Jonas Valanciunas dominated the game with 36 points, eight rebounds, three blocks and three steals. Unsurprisingly, he was named the most valuable player of the tournament with averages of 23.0 points, 13.9 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, a 59.5 percent field goal percentage and an 81.1 percent success rate from the free throw line.
Valanciunas has now been named the MVP of the FIBA Under-16, Under-18 and Under-19 tournaments, so this isn’t someone who has emerged out of nowhere to assert his dominance on the national stage. It has to make you wonder why a player like this would last until the fifth pick in what appears to be one of the weakest drafts in recent years. There’s certainly nothing we can observe that would explain this, but I’m well aware that there are haters out there who will insist on doubting his capabilities until he shows and tells on the NBA stage.
With that in mind, let’s focus on his weaknesses right now so that those of us who are super-excited about Jonas’ potential can’t be perceived to be blind to his faults. Let’s face it — a post like this is strongly inviting a “calm down” response unless we show restraint in our praise.
Let’s start with his apparent weaknesses: his lack of strength, which is to be expected from a gawky, six-foot-11, 19-year-old. He doesn’t always bring 100 percent effort on defense, as I witnessed today as he demonstrated an unusual tentativeness on that end of the floor so that he could stay out of foul trouble and continue to dominate offensively. And he’s a little too confident with his ball-handling abilities — a few times per game this tournament, he brought the ball up the court like a point guard and he’ll get stripped without impunity if he tries that in the NBA.
Have I criticized Valanciunas enough so that I don’t come off as a fanboy? Have the hater sharks been fed their chum? OK, let’s get to the inevitable fawning.
This kid is talented, driven, passionate about the game and about winning, and I’m now convinced that he has more upside than anyone to come out of the 2011 NBA Draft. If you watched Jonas Valanciunas in this tournament and you still believe he wasn’t worth a fifth overall pick in that draft class, you’re an idiot and I’m not interested in engaging with you in a debate about his potential.
I’m not guaranteeing that Valanciunas will be an All-Star — this isn’t Shaquille O’Neal from the 1992 draft where it was obvious that only injuries would prevent him from a Hall of Fame career. But in terms of his résumé, his temperament, and his potential, if you can’t see what Jonas Valanciunas is capable of achieving in the NBA — you’re just trying too hard to be a hater, and you need to be trying harder.
There is absolutely no reason not to get your hopes up about what Jonas Valanciunas can do for this franchise, if you’re a Raptors fan. Forget about everyone who is currently on the roster, this could be the franchise player we’ve hungered for since Vince Carter forsook us. We won’t get to see him in action in a Raptors jersey until October 2012, but if you didn’t get to watch him in the FIBA Under-19 tournament, I’m telling you as a hard-hearted Raptors cynic that it’s OK to get excited about him. We can’t know how he’ll turn out, but he looks like the real deal right now.