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Jonas Valanciunas As Franchise Player

Through the first six games of the World Cup, no player has been more valuable to his team than Jonas Valanciunas, Lithuania’s 22-year old center. After riding the bench in the 2012 Olympics and serving as a role player at Eurobasket last summer, Valanciunas has moved into a featured role in this year’s tournament. He is the backbone of Lithuania’s game-plan on both sides of the ball, averaging 13 points, 8 rebounds and 1 block a game on 77% (!) shooting.

Despite losing star PG Mantas Kalnietis to a collarbone injury before the start of the World Cup, Lithuania has played extremely well in Spain. They went 4-1 in group play, knocking off Slovenia and losing to Australia, and beat New Zealand 76-71 in the round of 16. If they can get past Turkey on Tuesday, they would face the US in the semifinals and they appear to be the only team on that side of the bracket with a chance to give the Americans a game.

That’s almost entirely due to the presence of Valanciunas, one of only two NBA players, along with Donatas Motiejunas of the Houston Rockets, on their team. He almost single-handedly carried them to victory over New Zealand - not only could the Tall Blacks not match up with him in the post, they could barely even box him out. Valanciunas towered over their undermanned frontline, finishing the game with 22 points and 13 rebounds on 8-11 shooting.

At 7’0 245 with a 7’4 wingspan, Valanciunas is one of the biggest players in the NBA and he appears to have gotten even bigger in the offseason. Like many big men in their early 20’s, he is still filling out his frame and growing into his body. While he’s not an elite athlete, Valanciunas moves well for a player his size, which allows him to be an effective player on both ends of the floor. He is the rare center who can impact the game on offense and defense.

The offensive side of the ball is where Valanciunas has shown the most improvement at the World Cup, where he is getting the chance to be a featured player. Instead of using him primarily in the pick-and-roll game, Lithuania is making a concerted effort to pound the ball into him in the post. He has the size and strength to establish deep post position, the length to score over the top of defenders and the touch to get the ball softly on the rim.

Valanciunas is still far from a finished product with his back to the basket, but he is steadily improving that aspect of his game, to the point where opposing teams almost have to double him. The result is that he opens up the floor for the rest of Lithuania’s players, almost all of whom can knock down the three-point shot. With Motiejunas spreading the floor from the power forward position, they are a tough match-up for just about any team in the tournament.

Even the Americans, who gave up 25 points and 8 rebounds to Mexico’s Gustavo Ayon in the round of 16, will have their hands full with Valanciunas. That is why Lithuania’s quarterfinal game with Turkey will be so intriguing, as they have one of the only big men in the World Cup (Omer Asik) with the size to bang with Valanciunas in the paint. Asik, one of the best post defenders in the NBA, will be a good test to see how far his individual offense has come.

What makes Valanciunas so interesting, though, is that he provides value on defense as well. Most guys with his ability to score in the paint can’t match his ability to protect the rim or vice versa. Asik is the perfect example - for as good as he is on defense, he’s a non-entity on offense. Valanciunas, on the other hand, can give the Lithuania 20+ points while also serving as the backbone of their defense. He makes everyone better on both sides of the ball.

Lithuania doesn’t have a ton of athleticism on the perimeter, but their guards can extend out on defense and jump passing lanes because they know have a mobile Goliath behind them. Valanciunas doesn’t have monstrous block numbers, but he doesn’t need too to have an impact on the game. Just by moving his feet, waving his arms and standing at the front of the rim, he makes life much harder for any offensive player who gets into the lane.

In essence, having Valanciunas on your team means you have will a good defense and a good offense, which automatically makes you a dangerous team, at any level of basketball. Few players can have a bigger impact on a game than a two-way center, which is why they have always been one of the most coveted players in the sport. Without Kalnietis, Lithuania doesn’t have much perimeter talent, but Valanciunas’ presence means they can punch above their weight.

You can count the number of centers in the NBA with more two-way ability than Valanciunas on one hand - Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Tim Duncan. The scary part is that he’s only scratched the surface of his potential. He’s still only 22 years old - he should be a senior in college. Not only does he still have room to improve as a post scorer and an interior defender, he’s shown flashes of a perimeter jumper and a passing game in Spain.

He hasn’t gotten much press because he’s been confined to a smaller role with the Toronto Raptors, with usage ratings of 16.9 and 18.5 in his first two seasons in the NBA. They won’t turn their offense over to him overnight like Lithuania has done, but you can expect that they will continue to gradually expand his role over the next few years. The Raptors will be counting on internal improvement and featuring Valanciunas is one easy way to do that.

The reason that big men tend to develop slower than guards is that they are pressed into service at a much earlier age. A perimeter player as raw as Valanciunas would not have broken into the NBA as a starter at the age of 20. However, because there are so few human beings in the world with his combination of size, skill and athleticism, he was forced to learn on the job. He didn’t go to high school or play AAU basketball - he was a pro at the age of 15. 

Valanciunas won’t reach his ceiling as a player until 2020, when he is in his late 20’s. Until then, he should steadily improve every season on both sides of the ball, much as he has done over the last three years, since he made his debut on the international stage. He is a franchise player in every sense of the word, both for his NBA and national team. As long as they have Valanciunas, both Lithuania and the Toronto Raptors will be teams to reckon with.

Dario Saric's Best Case Scenario

For American fans, one of the most intriguing aspects of international tournaments like the World Cup is the chance to see some of the best young players in the world before they come to the NBA. Dario Saric, who was taken at No. 12 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in this year’s draft, is the perfect example. While he has played extensively in Europe, his only real exposure on the North American continent came at the Nike Hoop Summit in 2011 and 2012.

Saric is only 20, but he has been competing in some of the best leagues in Europe for several years. Despite his youth, he is one of the most important players on the Croatian national team, averaging 27 minutes a game in pool play. Croatia has played down to the competition, with a 2-1 record including an OT win over the Philippines and an upset loss to Senegal, but Saric has more than held his own, averaging 14 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists on 51% shooting.

At 6’10 210, his ability to slide between multiple positions upfront gives Croatia some versatility with their line-ups, but he has mostly played as a small-ball PF in Spain. Unlike for his club team, where he gets to dominate the ball as one of the primary options, Saric has primarily played off the ball, setting picks, cutting to the rim and spotting up from the perimeter. A hard-nosed player with a high basketball IQ, he can impact the game in multiple ways.

It’s easy to see where the excitement comes with Saric. He is a mismatch nightmare - he can put the ball on the floor and take bigger players off the dribble as well as play with his back to the basket and punish smaller players on the block. He can clear the defensive glass and start the fast break himself and he knows how to accept the double team and find the open man in the half-court. Not many guys have his combination of size, skill and athleticism.

On the offensive side of the ball, the big question is his three-point shot, something he has struggled with in his first few years as a pro. He is coming off his best season as a shooter, going 34.5% on 3.1 attempts a game in the Adriatic League, but he shot only 30.8% in Eurocup play and was at 30.3% and 33.3% the previous two seasons. That’s been the biggest hole in his game in Spain, where he has shot 2-11 from deep, mostly on open looks off ball movement.

That shot is almost always going to be there for Saric, since very few big men have the speed and quickness to match up with him so far from the basket. Being able to consistently stretch the defense will take his game to the next level - not only will it open driving lanes for everyone else on the team, it will give him the ability to create a good shot against even elite defenders. As is, international teams are happy to concede the jumper and play him for the drive.

For a point forward like Saric, the three-point shot is a crucial weapon in his repertoire, especially at the highest levels of the game. When looking for possible NBA comparisons, the most optimistic ones - Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Toni Kukoc - are all guys who made a living at the three-point line. Even at the World Cup, he isn’t going up against many of the long 6’9+ athletes in the frontcourt that he will see on a nightly basis in the NBA.

For the first time in his life, he will be matching up with defenders who are just as big and just as athletic as him. That’s what makes combo forward one of the most difficult positions to project in the draft - all of a sudden, a guy who was too big for small forwards and too quick for power forwards becomes too slow for small forwards and too small for power forwards. Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley are two prominent examples of that in recent years.

Saric is bigger than Beasley and more skilled than Williams, but he could have many of the same issues on the defensive side of the ball. He only has a 6’10 wingspan, so he has a hard time contesting shots on the perimeter or protecting the rim. Like most guys his size, Saric is not totally comfortable getting into a stance and sliding his feet on the three-point line, which opens him up to reaching and committing silly fouls. He is averaging 4 a game in the World Cup.

To be sure, a lot of that is inexperience and few players come into the league with the ability to be impact defenders. Saric gets an impressive amount of steals (1.3 a game in Spain) and should become a stronger player and a better positional defender as he gets older, but his inability to block shots (0.3 a game) will always give him a ceiling on that side of the ball. He may never be able to match up with the best players in the NBA at either SF or PF.

A good rule of thumb for combo forwards, whether in Europe or the NCAA, is that they are probably best suited as small-ball PF’s in the NBA. Saric is no exception - if he can play with a rim protector, he should be able to survive in the post and guard most PF’s on the perimeter. That’s Croatia’s biggest problem in the World Cup, as they don’t have a lot of team speed or interior defense, so opposing teams can put their head down and get easy looks at the rim.

Going forward, the best case scenario for Saric is that he continues to develop his three-point shot and becomes capable of being a primary or secondary option in the NBA. While he will never be a great two-way player, if he can come into the league as a high-level ball-handler, shooter, passer and rebounder at 6’10, he could be a starter on an elite team. He has the floor of a solid NBA contributor and he still has lot of room to grow as a player.

One interesting rookie to track next season will be Nikola Mirotic, a high-level European combo forward who is about the same age Saric will be when he comes over in 2016. While their games aren’t identical - Mirotic is a better shooter and a worse passer - they are both 6’10 small-ball PF’s with above average skill and average athleticism for their NBA position. If Mirotic can survive defensively in Tom Thibodeau’s system, that will be a good sign for Saric.

Saric is a unique player with very defined strengths and weaknesses, which gives his NBA career a wide range of possible outcomes. Maybe the biggest reason for optimism is his age, as he is one of the youngest players at the World Cup. If Croatia makes the Olympics in 2016, he will probably be their best player and he will still be only 22. No matter what happens in the NBA, Saric will be a player to watch at every international tournament for the next decade.

Team USA's Big Problem Playing Small In World Cup

Ever since taking over as the head coach of Team USA, Mike Krzyzewski has made a philosophical commitment to playing small. The logic is simple - since the Americans have the best athletes and the most skilled players in the world, they should be playing in as much space as possible. Coach K was playing 4-out basketball before it became fashionable in the NBA, most notably in 2012, when he used a frontcourt of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.

LeBron and Carmelo were never going to play internationally in 2014, but Durant, Kevin Love and Paul George were expected to be mainstays on the roster. In a perfect world, they would have split the majority of the time at the forward positions, giving Team USA an almost unbeatable combination of size, athleticism and shooting ability. Instead, Love withdrew before training camp started, George was injured and Durant got cold feet at the last minute.

As a result, in a 95-78 win over Brazil in a scrimmage this weekend, Coach K started Kenneth Faried at power forward and brought Rudy Gay off the bench. While it’s hard to be too critical of a 17-point win over a good team, the game was closer than the score indicated. Faried and Gay are proven NBA players, but neither is likely to make an All-Star team and they don’t have the combination of skill and athleticism to blow international teams off the court.

In the modern game, power forward is the most important position on the floor. It determines your identity as a team - a traditional big man means a two-post team that wants to slow the tempo, attack the glass and play through the post, a combo forward means a four-out team that wants to speed up the game, spread the floor and slash at the rim. As a rule, bigger teams struggle with floor spacing on offense while smaller teams struggle on defense and the glass.

At the international level, where there isn’t nearly as much size as there is in the NBA, you can get away with playing smaller guys at the position. That’s the bind Team USA has traditionally put other teams in - their big men don’t have the size to exploit guys like Durant and George in the post and they don’t have the quickness to defend them on the perimeter. If they downsize and try to play with four perimeter players, they play right into Team USA’s hands.

That dynamic changes without those guys on the roster. On Saturday, the only small-ball PF’s on hand were Gay and Chandler Parsons. It’s a dramatic downgrade on both sides of the ball - they don’t have the athleticism to blitz teams on defense and they aren’t nearly as dynamic on offense. Other countries would be more than willing to have Team USA run offense through them. The talent gap is still there, but the rest of the world can match up with the Americans.

When Faried was in the game, Team USA became much more conventional. At 6’8 230, he likes to crash the offensive glass and is most effective playing in the paint. While he has received raves for his energy level and hustle in training camp, he can’t shoot and doesn’t have the skill to create a mismatch on the offensive end of the floor. In many ways, he represents the worst of both worlds at the position, since he can’t defend the pick and roll or protect the rim either.

The only reason Coach K could stick with his offensive schemes was the presence of Anthony Davis at the center position. Davis was the best player on the floor for most of the night and his ability to run the pick-and-pop and knock down the 20-foot jumper allowed Team USA to play 4-out even with Faried on the floor. While he has the size to play as a small-ball center in the international game, Davis is also the best power forward on the roster.

Given the lack of options at the forward positions, that is the adjustment that could make the most sense for Team USA. If Davis is going to play big minutes on the perimeter on offense anyway, Coach K might as well pair him with a bigger player who can protect the rim. All three of the centers still in the running to make the team - DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee - would make more sense next to Davis than Faried, Gay or Parsons.

Even before a knee injury that kept him out of the game against Brazil, Cousins was seen as a longshot to make the cut to 12 players. However, his ability to play out of the post would give the Americans a whole different dimension on offense and he can’t be any worse at defense, either on the perimeter or in the paint, than Faried. The duo of Cousins and Davis would be an absolute nightmare to defend and would give Team USA a ton of length and skill upfront.

What makes Drummond so interesting is that he is simultaneously the biggest player on the roster as well as the one reserve who would significantly improve the Americans overall athleticism. At 6’11 275, his ability to run, jump and stand at the front of the rim at would represent a huge mismatch problem for other countries. While he can’t operate outside of the paint, the shooting ability of Davis means Team USA could play Drummond and still space the floor.

Plumlee would represent a compromise choice, as he’s more athletic than Cousins and more skilled than Drummond. Of course, he isn’t nearly the player the other two are and it seems unlikely he would even be in consideration if he hadn’t played at Duke. Nevertheless, like the other two centers, he would represent a dramatic upgrade from Faried in terms of his ability to protect the rim and match up with the Gasol brothers in a game against Spain.

In the last two Olympics, Coach K has been able to get away with going small against a much bigger Spanish team, knocking them off in the gold medal game. However, the 2008 and 2012 teams had far more athleticism and skill than the 2014 version and the Spaniards stuck with them for all 40 minutes. This time around, if he moves Davis to PF and pairs him with a C, he can have the benefits of playing small while upgrading his team on both sides of the ball.

No matter what Coach K decides to do with his rotation, the Americans will be the favorites in Madrid. Not only do they have the most talent, they have a very easy draw, as the vast majority of their potential challengers will be other side of the bracket. However, a depleted talent pool means Team USA is as vulnerable as it has been in some time. If they leave points on the board in terms of building their roster, it could come back to haunt them.

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