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Jonas Emerging

The most difficult aspect of evaluating Toronto Raptors’ draft pick Jonas Valanciunas before the draft was his level of competition. Unlike his American counterparts, he turned pro at 16, competing against grown men instead of amateurs.

He was a 19-year-old role player on his club team (Lietuvos Rytas) last season, playing 14 minutes per game and rarely having much offense run for him. The vast majority of his points came off rebounds, hustle plays and cuts to the basket.

But in the FIBA U-19 World Championships earlier this month, Valanciunas was given the opportunity to be a primary offensive option and compete against his age group. His dominant performance, leading Lithuania to the championship and earning the tournament MVP, showed why he might become the steal of the 2011 draft.

At 6’11, 240 with a 7’6 wingspan, Valanciunas takes up a lot of space on the court; his length, foot-speed and energy level make him an extremely effective interior defender. In contrast to the stereotype surrounding many European big men, he defends the rim with tenacity and isn’t afraid to bang down-low.

Last year, he was one of the best rebounders and shot-blockers in the Euroleague on a per-minute basis, averaging 14.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. At the U19 Championships he was simply dominant, averaging 13.9 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game.

Offensively, his years as a role player have made him extremely efficient; he has good touch at the rim and does a great job keeping the ball high and over the reach of most defenders. When Lithuania played the US in pool play, he overwhelmed Florida’s Patric Young, one of college basketball’s most impressive athletes at 6’9, 245. There wasn’t much Young could do when he got the ball near the rim, and he scored 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting.

His post-up game is still fairly rudimentary, but he has the skill level and athletic ability to become an effective low-post scorer in the NBA. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of his game is his free-throw shooting: he shot a remarkable 92% from the line last season. While he rarely looks for his jumper, his free-throw percentage indicates that he could become an effective pick-and-pop big man, with the ability to step out and hit 15-20 foot jumpers.

At only 19-years-old, he’s still a fairly raw player. He’s not as comfortable defending out on the perimeter, and he’ll need to add some muscle to become a starting center. He was often the biggest and most athletic player on the court at the U19 Championships, which won’t be the case in the NBA.

His ceiling is somewhere around Pau Gasol, but it’s entirely possible that he maxes out as a skilled version of Andris Biedrins. But, when you consider how weak the 2011 draft class was, a player whose worst-case scenario is an effective two-way center shouldn’t have lasted to the #5 pick.

In the NBA, skilled and athletic seven-footers are worth their weight in gold. Many of the league’s best teams don’t have one, playing power forwards masquerading as centers at the most important position on the floor: from Joel Anthony in Miami to Ronny Turiaf in New York.

Brendan Haywood got $55 million from the Dallas Mavericks despite committing atrocities to offensive fundamentals on a nightly basis; Marcin Gortat got $34 million coming off a season where he averaged 13 minutes a game backing up Dwight Howard.

With Shaq and Yao Ming retiring this off-season, there are only a handful of seven-footers left who have proven they can contribute on both sides of the ball. If you have a chance to get that type of player in the draft, especially on a team-friendly rookie contract, you almost have to take it.

It’s understandable why Kyrie Irving and Enes Kanter, two players who could become primary offensive options, were taken ahead of Valanciunas. Utah already had Derrick Favors and needed a more offensive-minded big man to complement him; Cleveland needed a player they could build their offense around.

But while Derrick Williams and Tristan Thompson will be good players, 6’8 forwards just aren’t as valuable as 6’11 centers. You can’t ignore fit when you’re building a young core, and it’s a lot easier to put players around Valanciunas, who projects to be able to defend 4’s and 5’s as well as space the floor out to 18 feet.

In Minnesota, Williams walks into an extremely crowded forward rotation with four other lottery picks -- Kevin Love, Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph and Wesley Johnson. Meanwhile, the Timberwolves, who had the NBA’s 27th rated defense, are still rolling out Darko Milicic and Nikola Pekovic at center.

Cleveland will likely have a top-5 selection in next year’s draft, when a bumper crop of power forwards -- Anthony Davis, Perry Jones, Terrence Jones, John Henson -- will be available. All would be more effective playing next to a 6’11 center who can shoot than a 6’8 forward who shot 49% from the free-throw line at Texas.

Toronto, after starting a front-court of Andrea Bargnani and Reggie Evans for portions of last season, knows first-hand how damaging one-dimensional big men can be. If Valanciunas doesn’t improve at all as a player, he would still be worth the #5 pick. If he does, he might have been worth taking #1 overall.
 

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