Despite strong numbers, Raptors’ Valanciunas being tested at EuroBasket

While his younger teammates (and prospective teammates) have descended on Toronto this week for semi-formal workouts, halfway around the world Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas is putting in a different kind of work.

The 25 year-old is currently starring for Lithuania at FIBA’s EuroBasket 2017 tournament among a handful of NBA standouts that includes Spain’s Pau and Marc Gasol, Germany’s Dennis Schroder, Slovenia’s Goran Dragic (and 2018 potential top draft pick Luca Doncic), and Finnish rookie Lauri Markkanen— a surprise star of the tournament thus far.

In Group B, which wrapped up round robin play on Thursday, Valanciunas was the star attraction among a field that included Italy, Germany, Ukraine, Georgia, and hosting country Israel. The Raptors big man helped Lithuania capture first place and a spot in the knockout stage versus Greece this weekend thanks to a 4-1 record and averages of 16.4 points and 11.4 rebounds in just 27 minutes per game.

He ranks first among centres in both rebounding and free-throw percentage, and seventh in scoring (the aforementioned Markkanen, whom the Chicago Bulls drafted seventh overall with the pick acquired when they traded Jimmy Butler to Minnesota on draft night, is first).

With their starting point guard injured just two days before the start of the tournament and long-time stalwarts like Sarunas Jasikevicius and Linas Kleiza not participating, Valanciunas has been thrust into a feature role and has emerged as the focal point of the offence, something Raptors fans have wanted to see glimpses of for what seems like his entire five-year NBA career.

“From the start of the games everything goes through Jonas,” says international basketball insider David Pick, who is covering EuroBasket in Tel Aviv, Israel where Group B games were played. New York Knicks scorer Mindaugas Kuzminskas was in the starting lineup for Lithuania in their first game but has since been removed to add some firepower off the bench, which has further increased Valanciunas’ go-to status.

After a slow start— the low-light of which was a nine-point performance in Lithuania’s opening-game 79-77 upset loss to Georgia, in which Valanciunas posted a team-low minus-10 while on the court— he’s turned things around along with his team, including his personal-best scoring outburst for the national team, posting 27 points versus Germany on Thursday to lock down first place in the group.

“His stats were great in the group stage but if you’re just reading box scores you’re not quite getting the whole story,” Pick says. “I’m not going to say the numbers lie but he was competing in a group featuring mostly undersized centres— there were no Gasols, Mozgovs, or Vucevics.”

While the lack of size in his group has allowed him to establish himself as a bruising force on offence, mismatches have proved to be a problem, particularly on the defensive end. He’s looked comfortable on both ends of the floor against the likes of Zaza Pachulia, but the same can’t be said against more mobile opponents— which, as you’ll recall, was a big reason why Valanciunas was taken out of the starting lineup in the first round of the NBA playoffs vs. Thon Maker and the Milwuakee Bucks.

Even though his team won handily, those issues were evident against, for example, Israel and six-foot-nine centre Richard Howell, who managed 20 points on 9-of-13 shooting against his Lithuanian counterpart. Facing Ukraine— another win— he had trouble containing 25-year-old centre Artem Pustovyi, an invite to the Los Angeles Clippers training camp. Although he stands over seven-foot-one, Pustovyi is lanky and surprisingly agile for his size and torched Valanciunas for 29 points in their matchup.

“I spoke to an NBA assistant who said he was surprised that Jonas wasn’t playing at a higher level in group play,” says Pick, who anticipates Valanciunas will be more at ease in the Round of 16— and beyond, should Lithuania advance— where he’ll see centres he’s more familiar with, who employ a similar skill set.

Heading into the tournament you could have expected to see glimpses of an expanded skill set from Valanciunas, whose name was rumoured to be on the trading block earlier this summer and at various points during last season. That he could use the tournament in part as a high-level training ground of sorts, to look for opportunities to implement, for example, a three-point shot that his NBA club has talked about wanting him to utilize a little more this coming season and beyond.

And that could have been the case had they not been embarrassed by Georgia in that opening game.

“If they won their first game it would have given a comfort cushion to experiment with his game,” Pick says. “But given the loss there’s been a sense of urgency.”

What Valanciunas is showing, however, is an assertive offensive game in the low-post. Many plays will begin with him receiving the ball in the post, where he’ll either bully his defender under the basket for an easy two points, use a confident spin move to free himself for dunks, or effectively pass out of the post to cutting teammates.

The Round of 16 matchup versus Greece on Saturday should bode well for Valanciunas but will also continue to test him (you can stream the game online— tip-off is 2:30 PM ET). For the most part, he’ll see a favourable matchup against slow, plodding centre Georgios Papagiannis of the Sacramento Kings, but the Greeks will likely try to exploit Valanciunas by playing Georgios Printezis, a typical modern European big man whose range comfortably extends to the three-point line.

Through five games at EuroBasket, Valanciunas has been Lithuania’s go-to star. And while he’s excelled through long stretches by being utilized differently than in the NBA, his hurdles remain the same.