Valanciunas living up to all the hype

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- How many of the presumed NBA rookie class of 2012 already have a 100-foot tall Nike billboard adorning the side of a building in their hometown? No hard and fast research is available, but likely no more than one.

How many of next year's NBA arrivals have a song written about them that is capable of getting 11,000 Lithuanians chanting in unison? We can say with more certainty that Jonas Valanciunas probably stands alone here as the subject of a hip-hop mix that has, when last we checked, racked up more than 200,000 hits on YouTube.

Google or download "Valanciunas (Big V Lithuanian Hero)," by the Miami-based crew O'Grime if you dare. But the impact of the 19-year-old center, who was drafted fifth overall by the Toronto Raptors last June, has been music to the ears of his compatriots at EuroBasket -- and, one imagines, to the brain trust of Canada's NBA franchise who have staked their reputation on his potential.

Through seven games, as the tournament hosts advanced into the quarterfinals, he has averaged 10.4 points and 3.6 rebounds, an efficient haul in only 17.4 minutes per night. Impressive for a player who is six years younger than anyone else on the Lithuanian roster, he has increasingly been on the court at key times.
It is a reward, he says, for a year of dedication that bore dividends in July's FIBA Under-19 world championship in Latvia, where he led his country to an unexpected gold medal while taking the MVP award for the tournament. Now he's getting his shot at the big guns, and taking advantage.

"Last year I got some experience in the Euroleague which was good for me, going up against big centers across all of Europe. It was a big boost for me," he revealed to ESPN.com.

"It's hard to make the transition from youth basketball to the senior teams. First, you have to not be scared of the players. Then you have to do your best. I feel good but I can't stop working because if I do, I'll be staying where I am. I want to go further."

He remains, for one more year, under contract to the Lithuanian club Lietuvos Rytas before becoming a free agent and available to temptation by the Raptors. Many in Ontario -- perhaps scarred by the Andrea Bargnani factor -- were perturbed when a lottery pick was used on a relative unknown, especially one who isn't immediately available for duty.

"I don't think I'm ready for the NBA yet," he said. "I still have one more year here and I'm going to do a lot of physical work, getting my body stronger. Then we'll see."

There is a genuine work ethic that has impressed his country's staff in recent months. Valanciunas admits he needs to improve his low-post game -- and he has been using the limited practice time here to add to his repertoire.

"He's a player who is very clever," declared Lithuania's assistant coach Valdemaras Chomicius. "You can communicate with him and he takes it on board immediately. You show him things, he concentrates on it and tries to put it into use quickly."

Matched up in the second round against Los Angeles Clippers center Chris Kaman, Valanciunas backed up his intentions. In what would become a critical victory for Lithuania over Germany, he held off Kaman in the post before unveiling a spin move to score over the NBA All-Star. Running down the floor together on the next play, Kaman tried to return the compliment but his younger opponent stood all of his 6-foot-11 tall and used his length to force the miss.

Watching from the bench, Chomicius sees certain comparisons with another Lithuanian giant who eventually came into the NBA. He once played alongside Arvydas Sabonis for the Soviet Union (both men won Olympic gold in 1988) before they teamed up for their newly independent nation. A mature presence, Valanciunas is not your typical prospect, he adds. And even amid the intense scrutiny of an entire country at EuroBasket, no one is concerned about his lack of experience.

"It's not a surprise for me that he's performing here for us because I played with Sabonis when he was the same age and we were world champions," Chomicius said. "He was at a similar place in his development. You have to come in and bring energy and do what you know. We've seen that with Jonas."

Toronto should be patient, he underlined. The raw talent can be further refined with another year of Euroleague play.

"He needs to get stronger inside, to learn to shoot more outside sometimes to stretch the defense and take advantage of it," Chomicius said. "You remember what Sabonis did. When opponents saw him for the first time, they didn't think he was a threat from out there. Then he hit a 3-pointer and made them think."

Hopefully, that will come in due course, Valanciunas said. "I've been trying to work on those skills individually," he explained. "I'm trying to improve on that."

If he does, he might get an entire album dedicated to him. And even more billboards.

The Big V aspires to be more than just a chorus line.

Mark Woods is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh, U.K., whose work appears regularly in British publications.