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Jonas Valanciunas And The New Big Man Synthesis

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.

Larry Brown's Brilliant Final Act

When Larry Brown left the Charlotte Bobcats in the middle of the 2011 season, it looked like a sad ending to a legendary career. Charlotte had been his fourth NBA head coaching job in eight years, a testament to both his brilliance and his uncanny ability to wear out his welcome. Turning 70 had not mellowed him. Brown was still feuding with players, getting into power struggles with the front office and burning every bridge on his way out of town.

The NBA wrote him off, but Brown couldn’t leave the game behind, the game needed him. He became a college coach, returning to the NCAA for the first time in 25 years. In 2012, he took over as the head coach at Southern Methodist, one of the most hapless programs in Division I basketball. It was the ultimate marriage of convenience. Brown needed a job and SMU had nothing to lose. One year later, it looks like a brilliant decision for both.

A private school in the middle of Dallas, SMU had fallen off the map since the breakup of the Southwest Conference in 1996. While their rivals joined the Big 12, the Mustangs spent the last two decades in the WAC and Conference USA. The school is known mostly for its football team getting the death penalty in the late 1980’s. They made the NCAA Tournament only once in the last 25 years. Before Brown’s arrival, the basketball program was not relevant.

However, in spite of its struggles, SMU has always had the potential to be a much better program. It is located in one of the deepest pools of basketball talent in the country. Last season, there were 11 players from the Dallas-area in the NBA, including Deron Williams, Chris Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge. The pipeline shows no signs of slowing either, with six McDonald’s All-Americans in the last four years and two of the top-5 players in the class of 2014.

Just as importantly, there’s no dominant local power to contend with. Dallas is a pro sports town in a football-crazy state; local basketball players dream of playing in the NBA, not the NCAA. The University of Texas, the most prestigious “local” school, is 300 miles down the road. As a result, coaches from all over the country have been able to dip into the area for talent. Williams played college ball at Illinois while Bosh wound up at Georgia Tech.

In the last few years, Baylor and Oklahoma State have turned themselves into Top 25 programs by recruiting the Dallas area. Before Scott Drew came to Waco in 2003, Baylor was in worse shape than SMU. The Bears' turnaround has been built on Dallas-area players like Quincy Acy, Perry Jones III and Isaiah Austin. Last season, three of Oklahoma State’s top four scorers -- Marcus Smart, LeBryan Nash and Phil Forte -- were from the Metroplex.  

Nevertheless, there are questions about both programs going forward. So far, Drew and Travis Ford have been better at recruiting than coaching. Last season, the Bears missed the Tournament despite having three future NBA players in their starting five. The Cowboys, who had as much NBA talent as anyone in the country, were knocked out in the first round. Neither coach has been able to get the best out of their players, whose draft stock has suffered as a result.

On the court, a mediocre college coach going against Larry Brown isn’t even fair. Brown is the only coach in basketball history to win an NBA and an NCAA title. His 2004 Detroit Pistons are the only NBA champion in the last 30+ years without a first-ballot Hall of Fame player. The last time he was in college, he coached “Danny Manning and the Miracles” to the 1988 NCAA championship, one of the most remarkable runs in Tournament history.

The big question was whether Brown would be able to recruit the talent necessary to win. Instead, his Hall of Fame credentials have made him a huge draw. After muddling through a 15-17 debut season with Matt Doherty’s players, Brown is bringing in an excellent four-man recruiting class next season. The centerpiece is Keith Frazier, a McDonald’s All-American shooting guard. There’s also Yanick Moreira, a four-star center from the junior college ranks, and Shannon Brown’s younger brother.

Brown took it to a whole different level over the weekend, when he secured a commitment from Emmanuel Mudiay. A top-5 player in the Class of 2014, Mudiay is the most high-profile recruit in school history. The other finalists were Baylor, Oklahoma State, Kansas and Kentucky. Beating out John Calipari, who is suddenly scrambling for a point guard in 2014, and Bill Self, coming off a victory in the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes, sends a strong message to future recruits.

Mudiay, an athletic 6’4 PG from Dallas who has drawn comparisons to John Wall, could be the domino that turns SMU into a national power. In the modern game, nothing attracts stars like stars. Myles Turner, the No. 3 player in the country, is now set to make an official visit. In 2014-15, a team with Mudiay, Frazier and Turner could play with anyone. Put Larry Brown in a one-and-done basketball tournament with equal talent and anything is possible.

The Mustangs aren’t in a BCS conference, but that isn’t as much of a problem in basketball, where mid-major programs like Gonzaga can become national powers. SMU’s ceiling is probably Memphis, one of the other schools in the newly created American Athletic Conference. While the Tigers have one of the most passionate fan bases in the country, the school doesn’t have any more financial resources than SMU, the location of the new George W. Bush Presidential Library.

For Brown, the college game might be a much better fit than the NBA. As a college coach, he serves as his own GM. There’s no front office to clash with and the roster turns over almost every year. There’s also less time for Brown to wear out his players, since the best only stay for 1-2 seasons anyway. He’s always thought of himself as a teacher of the game and college players, as a rule, are going to be more interested in learning than those in the professional ranks.

The number of people Brown has influenced might be the most impressive part of his legacy. He is a coach of coaches. The staff’s from his Kansas teams in the 1980’s are like a Who’s Who of the basketball world: John Calipari, R.C. Buford, Gregg Popovich, Bill Self, Alvin Gentry, Mark Turgeon. If we are all standing on the shoulders of giants, Brown is one of the giants of 20th century basketball. Most of the coaches in the AAC aren’t going to know what hit them.

Of course, that all depends on Brown staying in place for at least three seasons. At the age of 73, there’s no telling how much time he has left in his career, even without taking his notorious wanderlust into account. However, a few deep runs in the Tournament could transform the SMU program, one of the sleeping giants in the college game. It would be a fitting capstone to the career of one of the greatest coaches in basketball history.

The Dangerous Dre Drummond

Coming out of college, Andre Drummond was supposed to be a project. A raw 19-year old center, he declared for the NBA Draft after one season at UConn, where he averaged 10 points and 7.5 rebounds a game. Drummond was the No. 2 player in the country in high school, behind only Anthony Davis, but concerns about his NCAA production sent him sliding to the Detroit Pistons at No. 9 overall. After shooting 29.5 percent from the free-throw line, he seemed years away from helping an NBA team.

Instead, on a per-minute basis, he was one of the most productive players in the league as a rookie. The numbers are insane. Drummond had a PER of 21.6, 15th highest in the NBA. He was 2nd in effective field goal percentage (61 percent) and 3rd in total rebound percentage (21.2 percent). His block percentage (6.1 percent) and offensive rebounding rate (15.4 percent) last year would have been career highs for Dwight Howard! Headed into his second season, the sky is literally the limit.

As a rookie, Drummond played 20 minutes a night. If he can maintain that same level of production in the starting lineup, he will be one of the best players of the league. Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings have drawn most of the headlines this offseason, but Drummond’s progression is the real story for Detroit. A 20-year old-center with his talent can change the balance of power in the NBA. At 21, Dwight Howard was the best player on a playoff team. At 23, he lead the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals.

Drummond is built like Howard, except much bigger. The NBA lists him at 6’10 270, but he measured out at 7’0 280 with a 7’6 wingspan at the Pre-Draft Combine. He is one of the biggest players to enter the NBA in the last 20 years. Only two active players -- Aaron Gray and DeSagana Diop -- came into the league bigger than him. Neither is ever going to take the ball between his legs in mid-air and dunk it, which Drummond did before his freshman season (0:34 in the video). That really shouldn’t be possible.

A player with his size should have a hard time moving his feet and getting off the ground. Drummond, who had a 34’ max vertical at the Combine, can do chin-ups at the rim. This is an actual quote from Jay Bilas in a telecast of a UConn game two years ago: “[Drummond] needs to wear a mouthguard because he gets his mouth right up into the rim. He’s going to knock some teeth out. Most guys dunk on the way down. He dunks on the way up.”

One of the biggest differences between the NCAA and the NBA is the sheer size of the centers. There are only a handful in college with the size to play the position at the next level. Most have to add at least 10-15 pounds of muscle to survive. For the first time in their lives, they are matching-up with players who are bigger and more athletic than them. Drummond is the exception that proves the rule. As a rookie, he was the biggest and most athletic center in the league.

The last rookie center you could say that about was Shaquille O'Neal, although you can’t really compare the two. Shaq was a relatively finished product, a 20-year-old with three seasons of college experience and an advanced low-post game. Drummond, in contrast, seemed to operate primarily on instinct last season, scoring on dump-offs, alley-oops and offensive rebounds. It was see the ball, dunk the ball. Given an angle to the rim, it was almost impossible to stop him.  

Where Drummond has a chance to be really special is on the defensive end. A player with his size can change the game just by standing in front of the the rim. There’s no better example than Roy Hibbert, who uses his 7’2 280 frame to anchor the best defense in the NBA. The Indiana Pacers route all dribble penetration to him, confident that no one can consistently finish over the top of him. Drummond is longer and faster than Hibbert, although still years away from his level of defensive production.

High-level interior defense is as much mental as physical. The best anticipate, rather than react, to the offense. Marc Gasol isn’t the most athletic guy in the world, but his ability to quarterback the Memphis Grizzlies defense won him the Defensive Player of the Year Award. DeAndre Jordan and Javale McGee, in contrast, have all the physical tools, but neither has quite been able to put it all together. This is an area of Drummond’s development where the Pistons coaching staff could play a huge role.

An even more pressing issue is his free-throw shooting. He shot 37 percent from the line as a rookie. Ethan Strauss had an article about him shooting underhanded, but he could literally just fling the ball at the rim and do better. If he can’t improve, opposing coaches will go with Hack-A-Drummond. And while his inability to convert at the charity stripe didn’t affect his aggressiveness at the rim, it did it make it less useful. Even worse, the hard fouls can add up quickly.

Last season, Drummond missed 22 games with a stress fracture in his lower back. That’s a major concern, since super-sized centers, for whatever reason, have a hard time staying healthy. Yao Ming (7’6 310) retired at 31. Andrew Bynum (7’0 285) and Greg Oden (7’0 285) are one more knee injury from joining him. The good news is that Drummond’s frame carries all that extra weight well. If he had stopped growing at 6’8, he would have made an excellent NFL left tackle.

Next season, Detroit should have a fascinating team. Playing next to Greg Monroe and Josh Smith, two of the best passing big men in the NBA, could create a lot of easy finishes for Drummond. At the same time, the lack of frontcourt shooting could make it a tight squeeze in the paint. The Pistons will have four new starters, so it will take some time for the rotation to shake itself out and for Maurice Cheeks to (hopefully) figure out the right line-ups and combinations of players.

Either way, Detroit is a franchise on the rise. As long as Drummond stays healthy, he has as much physical upside as any player in the NBA. If he ever develops a post game, he could be unstoppable. However, even without one, he has a chance to be the best pick-and-roll finisher and rebounder in the league in a few years. In his prime, a player with Drummond’s gargantuan size will be an existential threat to any small-ball team. He’ll be a player worth watching for a long time to come.

Why The Kings Are In The NBA's 2nd Longest Playoff Drought

While the Kings haven't gotten any lucky bounces in the lottery lately, over the last five years, they picked between No. 4 and No. 7. Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins were good picks, but their misses in 2011 and 2012 has made them several players away from becoming a playoff team.

Shooting The Moon

Instead of trying to improve after winning a title, Dallas started shedding players and giving away draft picks. Mark Cuban wanted financial flexibility for the summer of 2012 when several superstars would become free agents. The best analogy for what happened comes from the game of hearts: Cuban tried to “shoot the moon” and missed.

How Clippers Should Use Blake Griffin

In order to maximize his skills and their title chances, the Clippers need to use Blake Griffin more like LeBron or Durant. In order for the Clippers to win a title, Griffin will have to displace Chris Paul as their best player and DeAndrew Jordan will have to be moved.

Behind Utah's Unique Rebuild

The Jazz broke apart a 43-win team and received nothing in return, but it’s been a fire sale years in the making. Ever since dealing Deron Williams in 2011, they have been quietly rebuilding their roster. In the process, they pulled off the rare double dip: acquiring multiple high lottery picks without sinking to the bottom of the standings.

Why The Nets Have Become Title Contenders

The only thing crazier than Brooklyn’s reckless approach to team building this offseason is that it just might work. Championships aren’t won on paper, but if everything goes right, all the pieces are in place for the Nets to make a deep run in the playoffs and could beat the Heat using the 2011 Mavs' model.

Pelicans Attempting To Become Kentucky South

From a basketball perspective, the Pelicans have had an odd offseason for a 27-win team with a 20-year-old franchise player. There’s a model for what the Pelicans are doing, but it doesn’t come from the NBA. New Orleans is trying to be Kentucky South.

Star By Star

If the owners want to make it harder for superstars to switch teams, they have to increase the financial incentives for them to stay. Otherwise, franchises with one All-Star will forever be looking over their shoulder. To paraphrase Sean Parker, having two stars isn’t cool. Having three is.

False Positives In Scouting For The NBA Draft

For all they told us, Thomas Robinson's college stats might as well have been his high school ones. Even the most advanced statistics depend on the underlying data and the data coming out of college is fairly flawed.

The South Beach Experiment Is Over- It Worked

One of the most common criticisms of the Heat is that they “bought” their championships. The real story, though, is who exactly is doing the buying. For the Spurs, the players are cogs in an organization. In Miami, the players are the organization. They’re a worker-controlled factory, employee-owned and operated.

Anatomy Of A Run

There are a hundred fascinating storylines coming out of Game 6 of the NBA Finals, one of the greatest games in NBA history. The three-minute stretch to start the fourth quarter allowed the instant classic finish to play out and gives us a lot to consider ahead of Game 7.

The Empire Business

The Spurs' ability to find and develop young players is the envy of the NBA, but there aren’t any secrets to what they are doing. R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich find diamonds in the rough because they always look through the rough!

Fred Hoiberg's Future

The early returns are impressive, but Fred Hoiberg's free-flowing and wide-open style of play is what has really caught the eyes of NBA GM’s. He could become the Chip Kelly of college hoops, unless the NBA grabs him before he has the chance to finish the job at Iowa State.

Dirk, Kobe Forestalling Decline

Not much has gone right for either the Lakers or Mavericks this season, but both remain worth watching, if only for the presence of Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant. Both players will hopefully continue adapting to playing at a near-MVP level in their thirties for many more seasons.

Brooklyn's Quandary In NBA's New CBA World

Everything goes back to the Nets' fateful decision to acquire Deron Williams in 2011. Right now, in 2013, would you rather have Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Brook Lopez and no cap room, or Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Damian Lillard, Lopez and room for a max player?

YOLO Trades That Make Sense

Win-win trades that also make sense financially will become even more rare in the NBA's post-lockout era. Here are trades for the Lakers, Mavericks, Hawks, Blazers, Celtics, Nuggets and Spurs that make sense for all parties.

What James Harden Needs

James Harden may be the best shooting guard in the NBA within the next two seasons, but as Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant's careers have shown, he’ll still need a lot of help to make the Rockets a legitimate championship contender.

Superteam On Life Support

The Heat began slowly in the fall of 2010 when their supporting cast was substandard. The Lakers now find themselves in a similar situation, compounded by injuries to several of their stars. Mitch Kupchak must upgrade the personnel for the Lakers to meet their lofty expectations.

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