Raps’ Valanciunas ready to become a true force

onas Valanciunas scored 15 points and the Toronto Raptors mounted a fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Chicago Bulls 85-79 on Tuesday night.(Charles Cherney/AP)

You can see it in his strut. Shoulders back, chest out, marching onto the court, arms hanging like he’s John Travolta swinging a can of paint through the streets of Brooklyn. It’s in the way he catches the ball, propels to the rim, shoves aside his opponent and finishes with a violent one-handed slam. And it’s there when Terrence Ross finds him rolling to the hoop. “Go to work, JV!,” Ross yells. “This is your league.”

A minute later, the seven-foot, 250-lb. brute in the white No. 17 jersey barrels past a crowd of powerless players clad in red en route to another emphatic dunk. In a dominant stretch during the opening minutes of his first NBA Summer League game, you can see it: This is the player Jonas Valanciunas can be.

The morning after the show, some of the richest minds in basketball have taken notice. Amongst a sparse crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, the GM of one of the NBA’s most successful franchises spots a fellow GM in the nosebleeds, makes his way up the stairs and grabs the seat beside him. “Did you see that Valanciunas kid last night?”

“He’s too good for Summer League,” his counterpart replies. “Nobody could stop him.”

The first GM, looking straight ahead at the action on the court, nods. “He’s going to be a good one.”

The Jonas Valanciunas we saw flashes of during his rookie year, the one who spent his summer toying with opponents in Vegas and making believers out of the rest of the NBA, is the player Raptors fans were sold two years ago when the Lithuanian was drafted fifth overall to mixed reactions. Chalk that up to the Ghost of Araujo (or Radojevic. Or Ukic. Or Slokar. Or Bargnani. Or… you get the point) still lingering in the ACC rafters. But we saw Valanciunas embrace the pressures of the NBA, improving month after month. And throughout Summer League, with a stronger frame and a killer drive, he showed what he can be. Which, for the Raptors, is the most important piece of an ever-changing puzzle. Because on a roster in flux and a franchise surrounded by uncertainty with a new team president and GM, Jonas Valanciunas is the only sure thing.

A few days after his Summer League debut, Valanciunas watches from a courtside seat as his teammates play a closed scrimmage against the Washington Wizards. He jokes with coaches and Raptors staffers (“Lights out!” he yells when slapping down the brim of a PR member’s cap, following it with “I’m only kidding—he’s my guy!”) and signs a stack of basketball cards before heading to a photo shoot outside a public school around the corner from UNLV—in 45-degree heat.

Despite the swelter, he’s all smiles, flashing a grin wider than a Buick, taking particular pleasure in whipping a ball to the Raps’ staffer bracing for impact off-camera. The shoot wraps, and Valanciunas’s agent asks if he wants to change out of his uniform before heading back to spend the rest of the afternoon at his five-star hotel on the Strip. No, Valanciunas says, it’s cool. It makes for quite the sight: A seven-foot NBAer in full uniform, flip-flops, Risky Business sunglasses, and a backwards teal hat with South Park’s Cartman on the brim and “JV17” stitched into the side. He squeezes his frame into the passenger seat of a rented blue Ford Focus and cranks the AC. “Man, these are hard questions,” he says with that grin after fielding a couple of softballs on the way to the Encore hotel, always looking for a laugh at every opportunity. “Why you giving me a hard time?”

Outside, the skylines of Paris, New York, and the rest of the Strip pass by. Out there, everything is artificial. The casinos, the people. Valanciunas is anything but.

The Raptors’ big man is a small-town kid at heart. He grew up in an understated bungalow—with a homemade metal hoop in the driveway—in Utena, a town roughly 100 km outside the city of Vilnius, home of Lithuania’s top basketball club, BC Lietuvos rytas. Most days, his mother, Danute, would come home at night just long enough to fix a quick meal for her only son before returning for her second shift as a nurse in a newly independent Lithuania. “She was a single mom, and it was really hard for her to raise a son in that environment,” says Valanciunas. “I was always very aware of that.”

From an early age, with his parents divorced, Valanciunas was the man of the house, taking cues from his mother in every facet of life. “She put me in a position to be a good man. Not a man raised in the streets. I learned that I have to take responsibility in everything I do. I learned everything from her.”

If it were up to Danute, her son would still be a dancer. From the age of five, that was Valanciunas’s primary athletic pursuit, spending four years immersed in a local club that performed native folk dances. But by the time he was in elementary school, basketball had become his life. After all, he was practically born into it. Three months after his birth, the Arvydas Sabonis–led Lithuanian national team, clad in tie-dyed green and yellow jerseys, went on a fairy-tale run at the 1992 Olympic Games, capturing bronze in their first year of existence. The country had just gained independence the year prior, ending a brutal half-century as part of the Soviet Union. Valanciunas had heard stories from his mother of what life had been like in Lithuania. The hardships and hunger, the death toll during the country’s fight for freedom. But through that ’92 team, basketball came to symbolize something far greater than sports: a new way of life. The sport subsequently exploded, becoming by far the most popular in the country, with Valanciunas the poster boy for the first generation after independence.

Still, growing up, Valanciunas didn’t know much about the NBA aside from megastars like Shaquille O’Neal—unlike today, it was rarely televised in Lithuania. But he grew up admiring the Lithuanian stars who found success playing in America, particularly Sabonis, the Hall of Fame centre (“Sabonis is my boss now,” he jokes, in reference to the former Trail Blazers star’s current role as the head of the Lithuanian Basketball Federation).

Before he could even get a driver’s licence, a then-six-foot-eight Valanciunas signed his first pro contract. Within two years he was playing for rytas in Lithuania’s top league. By the age of 18, he had established himself as the Next Big Thing, leading Lithuania to gold in every international tournament he suited up for, taking home MVP honours each time.

The NBA was paying attention. “We were quite bullish on him [at the draft],” says Raptors VP of basketball operations, Jeff Weltman, then assistant GM with the Milwaukee Bucks. Weltman watched in frustration on draft night as the Raptors plucked him at No. 5, confident that the year they would have to wait for his contract to be bought out overseas would be worth it. “Basically, we felt that he was the kind of player that he’s since become: big, excellent motor, tremendous heart, will to win, team-oriented, good hands, shoots it well, gets to the line and makes free throws, and he’s just going to give you every ounce that he’s got.”

Not a bad scouting report. Yet it wasn’t until training camp of last year that the team really knew what they had on their hands. “I had watched him on film, but you don’t really know a kid by what you see on the screen,” says Raptors senior adviser Wayne Embry, a former head coach in Cleveland, who adds that Valanciunas is already far ahead of where Lithuanian all-star centre Zydrunas Ilgauskas was at this point in his career with the Cavaliers. “Getting to know Jonas one-on-one, seeing him up close and having an ongoing dialogue, you can tell he’s got a genuine passion for the game.” As Embry says, “It’s in his roots.”

In his first NBA game—a pre-season contest against the Pistons—Valanciunas’s mind raced like a metronome set to Megadeath. “I remember it all—we wore our red jerseys and played in Detroit. I just kept thinking, ‘I’m in the NBA!’” But while a teenage Valanciunas had held his own playing against grown men in the Lithuanian league, it didn’t take more than a handful of games for him to learn the NBA is its own beast. “Even now, I realize these guys are strong. Like, these aren’t regular people,” he says, calling the Timberwolves’ Nikola Pekovic the strongest player he’s ever faced. “Every night, you’re facing a different animal.” As part of the adjustment, Valanciunas spent the bulk of his summer in the gym, packing on 20 lb. of muscle, looking like the “after” shot in a P90X commercial.

That’s not to say year one didn’t have some big moments. It did: starting all but five games he suited up for; his 22-point (on nine-of-13 shooting), three-block outing matched up with Tim Duncan 14 games into his career; earning Rookie of the Month honours in February; and a franchise-record 16 made free throws on 18 attempts in a late-season tilt against Washington.

But, like any rookie season, it wasn’t without its share of speed bumps. Mention the name “Caron Butler” and Valancinuas lets out a deep laugh. “Welcome to the NBA!” he says sheepishly, but with a smile. To quickly refresh your memory: The Raps enjoyed a 98–71 lead with six seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of a February game at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. Valanciunas held the ball at centre court, waiting for the clock to wind down, when Butler, a veteran of 11 seasons, offered a handshake near midcourt. Valanciunas happily obliged, only to watch in horror as Butler grabbed the ball from him and went in for an uncontested layup at the buzzer. To add insult to injury, Valanciunas was called for a clear-path foul in a last-ditch effort to impede Butler. Valanciunas says his teammates laughed about it for days. “That was an experience, man. It wasn’t nice, but he gave me a lesson that night. So I got something from that.”

Even harsher was the fact that last season marked the first time in his life he had to learn to lose. “That was entirely new for me. Every game I play, I want to win. But you learn it’s hard in this league. To be good, you have to put in the extra work, stay in the gym all day every day to get better, to get to that level where I want to be. Now I feel I know what it takes to be the best. And I want to be the best.”

For now, he’ll have to settle for very good. Valanciunas’s rookie numbers—8.7 points, six rebounds, 1.2 blocks per game, and a true shooting percentage of 61.9 percent—were better than the likes of Joakim Noah, Tyson Chandler, Andrew Bynum in their first seasons, all of whom went on to all-star success. And those around Valanciunas are already drawing comparisons between him and those names. Coby Karl, the 30-year old son of legendary coach George, is at Summer League as a member of the Raptors. For every Jonas Valanciunas or Terrence Ross in Vegas right now—guys guaranteed to have a job in the NBA come October—there are a half-dozen like Karl. They’re here trying out for scouts, uncertain of what the next weeks and months hold, let alone whether or not they’ll even have a career by then. They have everything in the world to play for and there’s a sense of urgency with each trip up and down the floor. But good luck confusing Valanciunas with that bunch.

When Karl watches him, he can’t help but recall his time in Los Angeles playing for the Lakers. “You look at his footwork and the way he catches the ball in the post and I can’t help but think of watching the bigs practise in L.A.” He remembers watching Bynum and Pau Gasol run through workouts with legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at Lakers practices, drill after drill concentrating on keeping the ball above your head when catching it in the paint to avoid the guards below trying to swipe it like hungry piranhas. It’s something the coaches have emphasized with Valanciunas his whole life, and will be a key part of his game as the Raps will look to him to shoulder more offensive responsibility this season.

Sitting in the stands, waiting for the Raptors’ next game to start, Valanciunas notices the familiar green jerseys from across the arena. His matching green eyes light up as he bolts out of his seat and heads toward a small gathering of fans decked in Lithuanian national-team unis with his name and number across the back. They travelled across the world to watch him play in person, and are more than just a little smitten when he stops by to chat and sign autographs. “He’s the most popular athlete in Lithuania,” says Perilas, a 20-something fan boy with thick-rimmed glasses. “And it’s not even close.” Valanciunas calls that the biggest honour in his life. “I know that before I was born, it was a very hard time in my country, people dying for their freedom. Now, I feel like all I can do is to keep raising our name, to spread the word about Lithuania.”

With his hard-working approach to the game, and likeable physical, throwback style, he’s quickly expanding his fan base. And nowadays, he’s not just adjusting to the NBA, but to being a star, the face on the marquee, the one the Raptors are leaning on to drum up fan interest and fill seats in the Air Canada Centre. “I’m cool with that,” he says earnestly. “I love fans. I need fans. I’m that guy who needs people to show up and to cheer for me.”

The blue Focus pulls up to the lobby of the Encore hotel. What do you know now that you didn’t know before you came to the NBA, he’s asked. He thinks about growing up in Lithuania. About his mother. About his new turn as the star of a franchise on the cusp of relevancy for the first time in years, in a position to challenge for a playoff spot on the heels of another disappointing campaign. About what the future holds. He sits back and looks out at the lights and decadence. “Man,” he smiles, “it’s a good life.”

He puts on his sunglasses, adjusts his cap and steps out of the car and into a sea of lights that bring the bright white letters of “VALANCIUNAS” on the back of his jersey to life. Necks of onlookers crane as he passes by and cellphone cameras whip out to record the moment. The swagger in his step is there, strong as ever.

At 21, he’s still very much a work in progress, countless aspects of his game to be developed in the coming years. But for now, Raptors fans have to like what they see, and the development of the kid is the most promising thing in Raptorland. This can be his team. Maybe even his league. And he knows it.

Valanciunas struts through the lobby, takes a right toward the pool and disappears out of sight. It’s a good life. And it’s only getting better.

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