Any Raptors fan or Lithuanian basketball supporter who has watched Lithuania’s Olympic group stage games is disappointed with the lack of tangible results or playing time Jonas Valanciunas has seen thus far in London.
At the end of the day, we’re talking about a two-week tournament in which Valanciunas is one of the five youngest players present. His game obviously needs to develop, but anyone worried that his performance in London is an indication that he isn’t ready for the NBA needs to settle down. What we’re simply looking at here is a promising young big man at the beginning of a long learning curve.
On Tuesday, Sebastian Pruiti wrote a fair, in-depth piece on Valanciunas’ strengths and weaknesses based on his play over the last year, with video examples of Pruiti’s observations included.
You can read the whole thing at the infamous Grantland.
Pruiti’s analysis pretty much goes along with most of what we and others have been saying about Valanciunas.
His skill set compliments the rest of the Raptors’ roster very well, as his strengths should help at least mask some of the deficiencies of players like Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan. He’s excellent in pick-and-roll situations, should work well with Kyle Lowry, possesses some pretty good fundamentals and continues to improve his defensive presence in the post.
I’d also add that if Jose Calderon (who has been the more disappointing Raptor in London if you ask me) sticks around as Toronto’s backup point guard, Valanciunas and Calderon should form a pretty potent pick-and-roll combination off of the bench until J.V. is ready to run it with Lowry as a full-time starter.
In terms of Valanciunas’ weaknesses, Pruiti points out the 20-year-old’s propensity to turn the ball over in the post and his overall lack of comfort with the ball in his hands.
Jonas is usually a highly efficient offensive player because most of his scoring opportunities come as a result of pick-and-rolls, put-backs, alley-oops, and other high-percentage shots (dunks). When he lets the game come to him and doesn’t try to force things, he’ll look good offensively. But if you’ve watched Valanciunas play in the Olympics so far, you’ve likely seen the perceived lack of comfort Pruiti addresses.
The hot topic right now is Valanciunas getting himself into foul trouble. He’s committed 10 fouls in 53:16 of playing time at the Olympics, which averages out to a foul about once every five or six minutes. If he were to stay on that pace as an NBA rookie, he would foul out with six personals every 32 minutes or so.
Even though Valanciunas cut his foul rate in half with Lietuvos Rytas last season, Pruiti points out that he still committed a foul on 10.8 per cent of possessions. Contrary to what casual basketball fans believe about the European and international game, you can actually get away with more physicality in the FIBA game than in the NBA, so if you think Jonas is having a tough time staying on the floor right now, brace yourself, because there will be some nights next season where it gets ugly early.
Based on how his foul rates have improved throughout his career so far, we can expect that he’ll adapt to the NBA game over time, but foul trouble is something we’ll have to expect for at least the first part of his rookie season, if not all of it.
Pruiti concludes his writeup by stating that Valanciunas’ “weaknesses will likely be minimized as the Raptors focus on what he does well, and that should make Toronto a place where Valanciunas can develop into the type of player he’s capable of being.”
What he’s “capable of being” is an All Star centre in the NBA, especially in a league that isn’t exactly stocked with young true five-men. As Pruiti points out in his analysis and as the Olympics have shown us, Valanciunas will obviously come into the league needing to work on and refine certain areas of his game. But that’s normal for any young player entering the NBA, especially big men and players coming from overseas.
Valanciunas’ Olympic struggles don’t really concern me as a Raptors fan because he possesses good fundamental big man skills (like rolling hard to the basket on pick-and-rolls, understanding help defence, etc.) that are almost always translatable to the NBA, or any level of basketball for that matter, and he’ll have a much longer leash in Toronto than he has in a short international tournament.
If he can capitalize on those fundamental skills, he’ll be able to make an instant impact in the Association, even in limited minutes, and if he works to improve the areas of his game that obviously need work (every scouting report praises his work ethic), he should reach that next level that scouts and guys like Sebastian Pruiti know he can get to.
Valanciunas’ performance at the Olympics should definitely serve as a sobering reality check for Raptors fans hoping the Lithuanian youngster would set the NBA world on fire as a rookie, but it means little, if anything, about his long term prospects.
One thing that does genuinely concern me regarding Valanciunas, though, is the fatigue factor. We can’t know for certain whether or not it’s playing into his current struggles, but it’s something to keep an eye on going forward. Between playing professionally as a teenager and young adult, Valanciunas hasn’t had an off-season in years. In fact, this is his third international tournament (and second senior international tournament) in the last 13 months, with a regular European season sandwiched between them.
Once the Olympics conclude, I’d imagine he’ll then undertake the exhausting process of moving halfway across the world and getting settled in Toronto, before training camp begins in October. Hopefully he can find enough time to give his body a much needed rest somewhere along that journey.
Lithuania takes on Russia in the quarterfinals at 9 a.m. ET on Wednesday, while Jose Calderon and Spain take on France at 11:15 a.m. I’ll have my thoughts on the performances of Valanciunas, Calderon and Linas Kleiza some time later in the day.