Lithuania, one of the most basketball-mad countries in the world, has long punched above its weight in international competitions. Despite a population of less than three million, they have four bronze medals since gaining independence in 1990. The Lithuanians aren’t one of the favorites at EuroBasket 2013, but they’re off to a strong 3-1 start in group play. More importantly, the tournament is the next step in the growth process of Jonas Valanciunas, their 21-year-old starting center.
Through the first three games, Valanciunas is averaging nine points, seven rebounds and one block in 22 minutes of action. While he’s nowhere close to a finished product, his level of production at such a young age is encouraging. The highest-drafted Lithuanian of all-time (No. 5 in 2011), Valanciunas is the rare gigantic center with both athleticism and coordination. When the biggest guy on the floor knows how to use his size to his advantage, it’s a problem for everyone else.
Before the 2011 NBA Draft, Valanciunas measured at 6’11, 240 with a 7’4 wingspan. Two years later, with his frame beginning to fill out, he looks much bigger than that. He towers over many of the European centers, in the same way he did at this year’s Summer League. Unlike most his size, Valanciunas is no stiff either. His big, loping stride isn’t always graceful, but he can get up and down the floor quickly. In the halfcourt, he consistently plays above the rim.
With his length and leaping ability, it’s virtually impossible to finish over the top of him. In his rookie season with the Toronto Raptors, he averaged 1.9 blocks per-36 minutes. Like most young big men, he still picks up way too many cheap fouls, but that should improve as he becomes older and more physically mature. Interior defense is one of the toughest aspects of the professional game to master, which is why experience like this is so valuable for Valanciunas.
On offense, the Lithuanians initiate a lot of their attack with Valanciunas in the pick-and-roll. Coming off the screen, his soft hands, long reach and finishing ability make him a threat anywhere in the paint. The defense has to respect him when he cuts to the rim, opening up plays on the backside. At EuroBasket, he’s shooting 67 percent from the field, mostly as a hyper-efficient release valve. Occasionally, though, he is given the chance to bust out some post moves.
For a big man with his physical abilities, scoring in the post isn’t rocket science. Valanciunas has the strength to establish position in the paint and the length to shoot over the top of the defense. All he has to do is keep the ball over his head. He’s been well coached, almost never bringing it down low, a cardinal sin for many young big men. With a high release point on his jumper, he has a natural show-and-go move, which could become the backbone of his offensive game.
At this point, however, it’s still pretty raw. His go-to move is a running hook over his right shoulder, which savvier opponents have started to figure out, drawing offensive fouls by cheating that way. The next step is a counter. If Valanciunas can learn to spin off his opposite shoulder and finish with a drop step or a turn-around, he’s going to be hard to defend. The physics are on his side: he has a soft touch and a higher release point than his opponents.
His ceiling, on the offensive end, will depend on his jumper. There are encouraging signs, namely his free-throw shooting: 79 percent in Toronto and 89 percent in his last season in Europe. He looks very comfortable at the line, somewhat unusual for a big man his age. After spending most of his career playing in the paint, Valanciunas could take his game to the next level by becoming a threat as a pick-and-pop shooter, i.e. fellow countrymen Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
While Valanciunas will probably never be as skilled as Big Z, his two-way ability still makes him intriguing. He also has the potential to be an excellent rebounder, as his 7’4 wingspan allows him to operate on a higher plane than most centers. In comparison to Jan Vesely and Donatas Motiejunas, both of whom have proportional 7’0 wingspans, Valanciunas starts with a huge edge in reaching for the basketball. There’s a reason Jay Bilas has a “wingspan” drinking game at the NBA draft.
As a result, Valanciunas is the rare big man who forces opponents match up with him. A center who can’t score is a defense’s best friend, allowing them to zone the paint and play 5-on-4. One who can’t defend is even worse, a welcome sign at the front of the rim. To survive in the modern game, a center has to do both. Many coaches who aren’t Scott Brooks have started taking one-dimensional big men off the floor, creating the wide-open small-ball game we saw in the last two NBA Finals.
Valanciunas represents a new synthesis: big and skilled enough to punish smaller defenders, but still quick and active enough to survive in a more wide-open game. He’s the perfect big man for a small-ball lineup with four shooters on the perimeter. If there’s only one defender in the paint, he should as big and athletic as humanly possible. As long as Valanciunas continues to develop defensively, he can be paired with a Ryan Anderson-type for maximum spacing.
For Lithuania, that player is Motiejunas, a 22-year-old 7’0 who plays for the Houston Rockets. The two should work well in tandem: the outside shooting and aggressive faux hawk of Motiejunas blending with Valanciunas’ more traditional approach. While they still have much to learn, they could become the backbone of the Lithuanian national team going forward. If the country can find another pick-and-roll guard like Sarunas Jasikevicius, they will be a real threat.
For the Raptors, the future is a little more cloudy. Bryan Colangelo is gone, leaving a roster of mismatched parts for new GM Masai Ujiri, who returns to Toronto as a prodigal son. Amir Johnson had his best season a pro last year, but his lack of a perimeter game might not make him the best fit with Valanciunas. If Dwane Casey wants to roll the dice, he could try to open up the floor and go small with Rudy Gay (6’8 230) at the power forward position.
Either way, with Valanciunas on board, Ujiri has the most difficult part of a rebuilding process behind him. When EuroBasket 2017 comes around, he will still be only 25, just coming into his own as a player and with a wealth of experience under his belt. In a best-case scenario, he’s Omer Asik with an offensive game. From Ilgauskas to Arvydas Sabonis, Lithuania has a long tradition of high-level big men. Valanciunas could be the next one in that line.