Crush their bones and folk dance in the dust
By Naoko Asano in Vancouver
Crush their bones and folk dance in the dust
By Naoko Asano in Vancouver
The skinny kid is gone. We have reached prime Valanciunas.

In a mostly empty gym on the outskirts of Vancouver, where the Toronto Raptors were holding their preseason training camp, Jonas Valanciunas stood at the free-throw line and cursed.

The morning practice was over, and most of his teammates were long gone, but Valanciunas had stayed behind to work on his turnaround jump shot. Jack Sikma, the legendary Seattle Supersonics centre, now bespectacled and working as a consultant with the Raptors, fed him the ball on the block, while Jamaal Magloire, likewise a longtime NBA centre and now a coach with the team, guarded him.

When the drill was done, Valanciunas transitioned to free throws. A small group of reporters stood in the wings, waiting for their chance to speak with the Lithuanian big man, who’d been working late all week, but Valanciunas didn’t seem to notice. He was making more baskets than he missed, but he was red in the face and kept muttering to himself, “F—.” He’d arrived at camp with more hair than he’d had at any other point in his NBA career, and the blunt line of his bangs cutting across his forehead looked medieval, or at least aggressively unfashionable in a way that, combined with his visible frustration, gave him an eccentric, almost villainous, appearance.

Eventually, Valanciunas dropped the ball and headed to the corner of the gym where the cameras were gathered, stopping to embrace, from behind, an unsuspecting member of the Raptors’ media relations team. When Valanciunas stepped back, finally smiling, the back of the man’s grey polo shirt began to darken with sweat, like blood soaking through a bandage.

“That is just disgusting,” the man exclaimed. Valanciunas belly-laughed as he walked off. “My pleasure,” he said.

Meet the new Jonas Valanciunas. Once a skinny, quiet newcomer, seemingly unsure of his own talent, the 24-year-old has evolved in his four seasons in the NBA. More than ever, he’s feeling confident in his place on the team, and comfortable in the spotlight—which is good news for the Raptors. In last season’s Conference Finals run, Valanciunas seemed to take a genuine leap forward, and after a relatively quiet off-season, expectations have risen for the man from Utena: If he can emerge as a consistently dominant offensive centre, the Raptors will be well-poised to contend in a year when they’re facing heightened expectations—and a tougher Eastern Conference.

For a time in the Raptors’ run to the Eastern Conference Finals, Jonas Valanciunas was without question Toronto’s most effective player. Despite the huge expectations on the shoulders of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, it was Valanciunas, when he was healthy, who carried the team. Walking all over opposing frontcourts, he seemed to have discovered some previously unused gear. His play was electric.

In game one of Toronto’s first-round series with the Indiana Pacers, Valanciunas’s 19 rebounds set a franchise playoff record. Game two saw him put up 23 points and 15 rebounds as the Raptors fought their way to a 98–87 win. “We gotta find a way to stop him,” Paul George remarked after the Lithuanian bulldozed his way through the Pacers. They never did.

“We all know that JV is a great basketball player,” says Patrick Patterson. “But just seeing how dominant he was, his force, his impact on games—no one could really stop him, whether it was scoring, whether it was playing defence or rebounding—it was shocking, but also not, just because we’ve seen him have big games like that throughout the year.”

Facing the Heat in the second round, Valanciunas would once again dominate. But game three brought a crushing blow: In the third quarter, Valanciunas—with 16 points and 12 boards in just 22 minutes—landed awkwardly on his right ankle, falling to the court in agony. He eventually limped off in the direction of the locker room, and would not return to action until game five of the Eastern Conference Finals. He played limited minutes across the Raptors’ final two games, posting just 15 points and eight rebounds. In all, he’d missed eight playoff games with the sprained ankle, something he calls the most frustrating time in his NBA career. “I was sitting on the bench,” he says, “watching guys play most important moment.”

“Honestly, I felt like if it wasn’t for the doctors, he would’ve been out there playing regardless.”

His teammates felt his absence, and noticed his discreet anguish. “He didn’t want to let everyone know what was going on, or what was going on in his mind, but you could definitely tell just by looking at him,” Patterson says. “You could see the frustration in his face. He was sad, he was mad, he was upset, and honestly I felt like if it wasn’t for the doctors, he would’ve been out there playing regardless.”

DeRozan takes a glass-half-full approach. “I’m happy for him to be able to have that experience,” he says of Valanciunas’s stretch of dominance before going down with the injury. “To know what it feels like to perform at the highest level like he did.”

If you look at the numbers, it’s clear that Valanciunas took his game to another level: Across a dozen playoff games, he posted six double-doubles and pulled down 14.5 rebounds per 36 minutes—which would be good for league-wide top-five if he could stretch that average over a full regular season. For his part, though, Valanciunas refuses to take credit for any of the Raptors’ highs. “We just played, as a team, together, so that brought us to the level we played,” he says. “We all stepped up a little bit, and we still getting better.”

For all his disappointment at missing out on much of the most important run in the team’s history, Valanciunas seems to have a Zen-like acceptance of what happened. Sitting out during the playoffs was far more gut-wrenching than sitting out when he was injured during the regular season, he says, but it wasn’t without value. “We learn from everything,” he says.

In fact, Valanciunas sometimes displays an odd mixture of defiance—never pleased with himself, always trying to improve—and fatalism. “We can’t be happy every time,” he says of his disappointment at this summer’s Olympics in Rio, when Lithuania failed to medal.

Still, it seems clear that he isn’t satisfied. “We can show them,” he says of what’s ahead in the new season—“them” being everyone and no one in particular. “Sky’s the limit.”

Give the man a hand
Valanciunas carried Toronto early in their run to the Conference Finals, turning in two of the best single-game playoff performances ever by a Raptors big man before he was sidelined by an ankle injury in the second round.

DeMar DeRozan remembers the Jonas Valanciunas he first met as a skinny kid who hardly said a word, and who had two left feet. “He’s grown,” he says, noting the physical changes—the once-lanky youngster bulked up and now wears a sometimes-bushy beard—but the most significant change, DeRozan thinks, is his “swag,” something Valanciunas didn’t seem to have much of when he first arrived in Toronto.

If you talk to people who’ve known Valanciunas over the years, two consistent themes emerge about the centre’s evolution: how hard he works, and how much confidence he’s gained. Magloire says part of that was about Valanciunas putting too much pressure on himself to fulfill expectations when he first arrived in Toronto. “He almost overworked himself because he wanted to become so good, so fast,” he says. “He’s a lot more comfortable than he was when he first got here. And he understands the NBA game a lot better.”

Patterson, who joined the team via trade during Valanciunas’s sophomore season, remembers the Lithuanian mostly keeping to himself. The veterans would joke around and go out for meals together after games, and Valanciunas either wouldn’t participate or didn’t say much.

“Recently, this past year, maybe the year before, JV is that guy who is cracking jokes, making fun of guys, just calling people out on random stuff, whether it’s something that they’re wearing or the way they’re acting,” Patterson says. “JV seems to be the jokester now.”

He’s also, according to Patterson, the first one in the huddle, and the loudest guy on the court. Even Jared Sullinger, who signed with the Raptors over the summer, has noticed a change in his onetime rival. They were part of the same rookie class, and Sullinger, ever a chatterbox, always insisted on trying to talk up the once-taciturn Valanciunas whenever the Raptors were facing his old team, the Boston Celtics. “It’d be at the free-throw line, like, ‘Man, how you doin’, JV?’” he explains. Valanciunas, though, never said much.

“He’s a goofy guy,” Sullinger says. “I never knew he was goofy. I just thought—you know, when you see a big bruiser, you think he’s always serious. But he’s a goofy guy. He loves to laugh, loves to have fun. I’m just happy I don’t have to guard him every play.”

Valanciunas says his focus of late has come from being a father, and realizing he wants to be a role model. In 2014, he got married, and in the spring of 2015, his wife, Egle, whom he met back home in Lithuania, gave birth to their son, also named Jonas. “I’m happy—it’s beautiful to see my son, how he grows, and to have a human being who learns from you,” Valanciunas says. “He does everything you do, then you realize you gotta be a better person and be better dad, better husband, better player, because he’s taking everything from you.”

There’s no doubt that Valanciunas’s game has improved in measurable ways as each season has progressed—his per-36 point and rebound numbers have risen steadily in every year of his NBA career. The question now is how much higher can he go.

Coach Dwane Casey has said that part of Valanciunas’s evolution needs to come on the defensive end. He’ll need to pick up where he left off in the post-season, helping in the pick-and-roll—Valanciunas, if you ask Casey, played “some of his best defensive basketball of his career” in the playoffs, and he’ll be a huge boost for the team if he can continue in that direction.

According to Magloire, the formula is simple. “I think averaging close to double figures in rebounding will put him at an all-star level,” he says. “He’ll take off from there.”

If expectations for Valanciunas are bigger this year, it’s something he’s accustomed to: ahead of each season in Toronto, he’s arrived with the promise of more gains, and each year he has delivered on some front—whether it’s improving his mid-range game or learning to face the basket. His confidence in the post has grown, and he’s focused not just on finessing his strengths but attacking his weaknesses.

Even after a blazing performance in the playoffs, Valanciunas claims he isn’t assuming he’ll get more touches this season. He knows his game still needs work. For one thing, his strength is also a weakness: his size means that he has at times been poorly matched against the smaller centres in the league. “I’m trying to be quicker, lighter on the feet, to be able to play against quicker guys,” he explains. The trick, he says, is finding a balance in his game, and trying to stay somewhere between 255 and 260 lbs. “Every night is a different opponent,” he says. “One night it’s a big powerful dude, and the next night it’s a quick, light guy who can drive you, who can just go by you, so you gotta be fast and strong. That’s the hard part.”

During the Raptors’ wild playoff run, the whole country was swept up in the frenzy. The response to the team was overwhelming—so much so that Valanciunas, who noticed red jerseys everywhere from the gas station to the grocery store, has a hard time describing it.

“Everything happens,” he says of seeing fans’ devotion to the team. “You can see everything.”

Blending in, with his seven-foot frame, has almost always been impossible, but Valanciunas doesn’t mind the attention. “I’m not trying to hide myself,” he says when describing what it’s like to be recognized on the street, stopped for a selfie or an autograph. “I’m not trying to run away from the people. I’m just simple guy living in my world.”

“Just seeing how dominant he was, his force, his impact on games—it was shocking.”

Valanciunas doesn’t live for the spotlight, but he understands it as part of his job. It helps that the Raptors’ fan base is an impassioned one. The thing about those fans, he says, is that their intensity is a source of motivation. “We cannot let down the fans and everybody who’s watching us,” he says. “Not just in Toronto, all around Canada, all around the U.S., we see red jerseys—with my name, Kyle’s, DeMar’s, whoever’s on the back. And cheering for us.”

The “us” here is imperative for Valanciunas. “It’s not on me, it’s not on Kyle, it’s not on DeMar. It’s on every one of us, so we gotta just play as a team. When we play, share the ball, pull for each other, supporting each other, then we good,” he says. “When we play selfish basketball, nothing gonna happen.”

That unselfish attitude helps to explain why, ahead the Raptor’s first game of the preseason, facing the Golden State Warriors at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, Valanciunas diligently signed jerseys with DeRozan’s name stitched on the back, and even a few Golden State hats.

As much as DeRozan and Lowry are the pillars of the team, Valanciunas’s ability to perform in the manner fans saw in glimpses this spring is vital to his team’s success this season. “If JV can play like that—be a dominant force down low, someone we can consistently throw the ball into—that’s just going to open up the game for myself, Cory, and take the stress off DeMar and Kyle to not have to do so much,” Patterson says.

Even Valanciunas’s newest teammate knows what a key piece he is. “We need him,” Sullinger says. “Kyle, DeMar, we all know that. But JV, we absolutely need JV and his presence in there in that paint.”

Valanciunas isn’t so interested in revisiting the briefly luminous performance he put on last spring. But ask him what the team’s run as a whole felt like and his manner quickly becomes serious. However you square it, it wasn’t good enough for him. “The goal was to win a championship,” Valanciunas says. “We were short. So we have a new season. We’re still going for the same goal, to win a championship. Nothing done yet.”

Photo Credits

Ron Turenne/Getty; Dave Sandford/Getty