The photo you see above is a screen grab of NBA.com’s landing page from earlier this morning. One of the five featured stories on their home page (all day Sunday and early Monday) was all about our favourite Lithuanian, Mr. Jonas Valanciunas, with links to “Centred: The Jonas Valanciunas Story” and a couple of Raptors-related columns.
I’m not sure how often you frequent NBA.com, but I can tell you that over the last few years (including the Bosh Era), the Raptors have seldom been featured on the league’s main website. On the rare occasion that the team has been featured on the site, it’s usually only because they played against (and lost to) one of the NBA’s marquee teams.
While the majority of the Jonas hype comes from Toronto, somewhere else in Canada or from his native Lithuania, it’s already clear to see that even outside of those aforementioned locations, Valanciunas is probably the most popular and most talked about Raptor since Bosh himself, and he hasn’t even stepped into an NBA training camp yet.
Part of this is thanks to the mythical stature that has come from having to wait a year before witnessing Valanciunas’ talents on an NBA floor. Whether we want to admit it or not, subconsciously, it’s like we think the longer we all have to wait, the better and more hype-worthy Valanciunas becomes.
But whether Valanciunas can live up to the hype isn’t today’s topic of discussion. It’s the fact that regardless of whether Jonas blossoms into an NBA star or not, people are interested right now, and they likely will be interested until he proves what he is or isn’t.
We all know that the Raptors, both as an organization and as individual players, have rarely grabbed the NBA spotlight anywhere outside of the Great White North. Specifically, I’m talking about their “watchability” outside of their own market/country.
For the Raptors to ever be a consistent, or even semi frequent national television team South of the border, they’ll need to find a star, they’ll need to show signs of future success, and of course, they’ll need to be exciting. Even during Bosh’s heyday in Toronto, the Raps weren’t exactly a watchable television draw. They found themselves on ESPN/ABC a few times I believe – towards the end of their division winning season in 2006-2007, for a few playoff games in 2007 and 2008, and an additional couple of times during the 2008-2009 season.
If I remember correctly, since then, the Raptors have only briefly appeared on NBA TV for random encounters.
I should mention that I’m not the type of Raptors fan who goes to sleep at night wishing for or needing American approval of our team. Outside of a handful of markets south of the border, this fan-base has proven it is among the best in the Association, and no one can convince me otherwise. Having said that, I do understand what being a team that draws television viewers means. It means a team and market that is taken more seriously by the players, most of which are American, that comprise the National Basketball Association, and by the officials, who whether purposely or subconsciously, favour star-laden teams.
We know that no player on the current edition of the Raptors gives casual NBA fans a reason to tune in. DeMar DeRozan, only if he maximizes his athleticism and potential, can get there, and Andrea Bargnani’s unique skillset for a big man could draw some eyeballs if the team he plays for is competitive. But realistically, Jonas Valanciunas appears to be the one man, all be it a very young one, who can begin to change this “little team on an island” mentality.
If Jonas Mania continues to spread through the off-season and leading into next season, and if the Raptors get some lottery luck and end up with an intriguing, must-watch young player to partner with Valanciunas, then the team may find itself on the right path back to respectability as early as 2012-2013.
Not in terms of immediate wins or toughness, the latter of which Dwane Casey has already gone about changing, but in terms of being able to tune into an ESPN or TNT telecast to actually watch the Raptors, instead of tuning to see things like this.
And to those who think being the lone non-American franchise in the league makes this a near impossibility, remember that there was a time, not too long ago, when the most sought after basketball star in the world pulled all of the NBA’s eyeballs North.
It can happen again, and if today’s random NBA.com appearance is any indication, Jonas Valanciunas may be the first step towards getting there.