LAS VEGAS — From the moment Jonas Valanciunas walked into the Thomas and Mack Center, it was obvious that he was no longer a rookie.
Despite this being his first Summer League experience and despite this being just the start of his second NBA season, Valanciunas strolled confidently through the arena looking like a man who had been here before.
The freshly inked wolf tattoo on his shoulder wasn’t the only thing different about him. Gaining size and strength through his chest and shoulders, the 21-year-old big man has put in plenty of time in the gym so far this off-season.
In his first game against the Miami Heat, he looked like a man amongst boys, easily overpowering the Heat’s bigs, getting to the hoop whenever he wanted and throwing down dunk after dunk. Valanciunas scored 14 of his 23 points in the first six minutes of the game.
After the contest, humble as ever, Valanciunas downplayed his big game.
“I want to get better like always,” he said. “Every game, every practice, every minute on the court I want to get better. This is the same way.”
Fellow sophomore Quincy Acy wasn’t as impressed as the media — both Canadian and American — with his teammate’s strong performance because he sees his potential up close and personal each day when the two are working out.
“He was dominant today,” Acy said. “I know that’s what he’s capable of and you’ve just got to keep feeding the horse. He’s a beast. He’s so unbelievable. It makes him fun to play with. You can’t ask for anything else.”
During the Raptors’ Sunday contest against the San Antonio Spurs, an 82-76 victory, Australian Aron Baynes used his six-foot-10, 260-pound frame to try and slow Valanciunas, but he still finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds. It wasn’t as gaudy a performance as the day earlier, but still, he held his own and led his team to a victory.
After he scored on a pretty hook shot on Sunday afternoon he heard some cheers and words of encouragement courtside as Amir Johnson was on hand to watch his teammates. Nodding in response to Johnson, the two shared a laugh with Valanciunas beaming at the praise from his veteran teammate.
Johnson wasn’t the only person with high praise for the shining sophomore.
Raptors head coach Dwane Casey is in Vegas to scope out his team and was pleased with the work Valanciunas has put in thus far.
“Jonas’s upper body is great,” Casey said. “He’s got to make sure it doesn’t slow him down but so far he’s done a good job with his upper body and he’s got to have that with the bumps and the bangs, especially with the rebounds and physical play in the paint.”
While it is always important to temper excitement over Summer League stats and results, the thing that stands out about Valanciunas through his first two games goes beyond his numbers. It is the reminder that every single time he steps onto the court he is coming to compete. Whether regular season game, pre-season, Summer League or practice scrimmage.
“He’s just got a lot of talent and he works so hard,” Acy said. “I think that goes unnoticed because nobody is in the gym with us. He was up early with me, putting in a lot of work, going through it even though he was playing 30 minutes a game. That’s very impressive and says a lot about him.”