Smith on Raptors: Creep, crawl, walk, run

September 27, 2012, 12:48 PM

As I wrote on Twitter a couple of days ago, the injury to Jonas Valanciunas is not a ‘good’ thing. Of course the coaching staff and front office of the Raptors want their young big man at 100 per cent for his rookie season and for years to come. So does the Toronto fan base. But this calf strain, by all accounts, should not be met with the feeling of disaster or doom that some are having.

I don’t believe that Valanciunas is going to be a regular cog in the rotation for the first quarter — or even half — of the season anyway. Healthy or not, the Lithuanian centre will be given time to grow; to watch and learn.

I’ve said for months, and this sentiment has been echoed by Bryan Colangelo and others within the Raptors as well, that Valanciunas’ biggest adjustment will be the NBA itself.

Forget about language and culture and the rest; his English is good and he’s a rock star in his homeland so I don’t believe he’ll be taken by surprise with too much (attention, travel, money, et al) in Canada or across North America. It’s the game itself — the way it is played and officiated.

Though this is, admittedly, a bit of a generalization, the NBA and the top leagues in Europe can be polar opposites at times; especially for big men. It seems that the physical play is given a longer leash overseas while merely breathing on an opponent on this side of the pond will result in a quick whistle. That example is more amplified when we’re talking about star players getting touched and/or when it’s unproven rookies or sophomores committing the alleged offence.

If you had asked me a week ago or a month ago or even longer, I would have told you that my gut tells me that Toronto’s starting five and rotation off the bench will look like this:

PG – Kyle Lowry
SG – DeMar DeRozan
SF – Landry Fields
PF – Andrea Bargnani
C – Amir Johnson

BENCH – Jose Calderon, Ed Davis, Linas Kleiza, Aaron Gray

I believed – and still do, in spite of Big V’s calf issue – that he and fellow rookie Terrence Ross would be brought along slowly.

With the ability to play Calderon and Lowry together at times, the re-signing of a depth guy like Alan Anderson, and the experimentation that could happen with DeRozan at small forward on occasion, Toronto has enough options at the wing positions to not have to rush Ross along. And the same can be said for Valanciunas with a rotation of Raptor bigs that includes Johnson, Davis, Bargnani, Gray and possibly Jamaal Magloire as well (note: I’m not yet including rookie Quincy Acy in the mix).

The fear for Dwane Casey and company would be having Valanciunas on the floor too soon or for too long. To see his confidence potentially affected by three quick fouls (for ‘breathing’ on his opponent) in five minutes. Instead, let him sit back and watch and learn for the first 10 games of the season — maybe more. He can watch the game and learn from talking to the veterans and the coaches. Valanciunas can study game tape every night and every morning, then gradually get on the floor more and more, extending his minutes and increase the responsibility (if warranted of course).

Creep. Crawl. Walk. Run.

Thus, while an injury that was first feared to be an Achilles (after a “pop” was heard – according to Casey) is going to take away from valuable practice time in training camp and part(s) of the pre-season, the long-term diagnosis for Valanciunas’ season should not be too far off its original path. His campaign, nor the Raptors overall, is not derailed. It is merely detoured.

With about five weeks to go until the regular season begins — and by my guess, 10 weeks to go ’til Valanciunas might be playing noteworthy minutes anyway — there is still plenty of time to recover, rehabilitate, re-focus and reassure the fans and the league that the future could still be bright(er) for the Raptors.

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