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Lewenberg: Valanciunas' locker room cheat sheet

Josh Lewenberg
3/24/2014 10:17:32 PM
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TORONTO - Sitting in the home of assistant coach Bill Bayno one February evening, Jonas Valanciunas fretted over the slump that had befallen him.

"I'm not scoring," the young centre griped, as he and his most devoted mentor watched film, hoping to get to the bottom of the recent on-court funk that was beginning to wear on his confidence.

'JV, you're 21-years-old," Bayno responded. "There's no centres in the league your age that are even playing much less averaging 10 points a game. You've had great games [but] when you have a two-point game, going up against a really good, tough [centre], you can't get upset about it."

His message, the team's message, has never wavered.

"You've got to do the other things to help us win."

With that in mind Bayno put pen to paper, drawing up a list of attainable goals for Valanciunas, a cheat sheet consisting of basic fundamentals that can now be found taped to the right side of his locker.

Outwork, outrun, sprint
[Set] great, legal screens
Step to [your] man
Block out

And it goes on like that.

"He got really down on himself when he went through that tough stretch," Bayno explained. "So we just really sat down and talked and [I] said, 'look, it's no secret, JV, these are the things you've got to do'."

"You're going to have some ups and downs," he told the second-year pro, "but I'm going to write it in your locker, so every day before the game you see, this is what you have to do on a nightly basis."

"Everything that's on that sheet is what we work on."

It's a simplistic tool but one that the Raptors' first-year assistant feels strongly about, one that has yielded proven results throughout his coaching career.

Admired for his innovative player development techniques and his passion for molding young talent, Bayno first adopted this method of teaching on one of his regular trips to Africa, about a decade ago. There he met Michael Scholl. The two would become good friends and Bayno eventually hired Scholl as his assistant at Loyola Marymount University in 2008.

Scholl - who spent eight years in Africa running an AIDS prevention campaign and implementing youth basketball leagues - introduced Bayno to an old Harvard study, something he used himself to motivate the children he taught there. The study correlated the success of students with writing down their goals and displaying them in their dorms. Bayno, like Scholl before him, applied that principle to basketball.

"Having those goals, having them written out where they see them every day I think is huge and it's been proven," said Bayno, who is also planning on employing that strategy with the Raptors' other sophomore, Terrence Ross.

"The vets don't need it. The vets will laugh at you if you try to do it. They really don't need it anyway. I could say to Chuck (Hayes), 'remember five games ago, you had that kick out situation, you missed a kick out'. He'll say, 'yep', and he'll know exactly the play. But the young kids need it."

Bayno has spent more one-on-one time with Valanciunas than anyone on the staff this season. Whether he's sparring with JV in the post - wearing his trademark forearm pads to simulate in-game physicality - throwing out-of-reach passes to him in practice or hosting him at his house for an extra film session, Bayno's fingerprints are all over the sophomore's continued development.

"He works with me a lot actually," Valanciunas said of Bayno. "He's helped me a lot, especially on the post-up moves. Now I feel much more comfortable going against those guys, like big centres. What we're working on every day is helping."

Bayno, like head coach Dwane Casey and the rest of the Raptors' staff, has worked to manage Valanciunas' own expectations and lesson the external pressure that he faces as an emerging star in the league. They're not overly concerned with his scoring totals or the number of touches he gets in the post. He shouldn't be either.

They know his value, at least this season, can't be measured using a box score. Instead they hope to lay down a foundation for the future. His role is to do the things he can control, to master the basic fundamentals of the game that will ensure his longevity in the league. The "little things" as Bayno calls them.

"We're a good team because he's accepted his role and he's done all the little things," said Bayno, formally an assistant in Portland and with the Timberwolves. "I really believe he's going to be a good scorer in this league."

"I'm not expecting a lot of point production every night out of him," echoed Casey. "If he gives it to us, it's great but I don't want to put that kind of pressure on him. He's growing, he's a second-year guy. I'm not going to expect him to get 23 points, 24 points every night. If he does, it's gravy. If he runs the floor, rebounds, plays defence, for this team, this year, that's great. I promise you, his offence is going to come. We all want it to hurry up and get here yesterday but I'm more concerned about him picking up the speed of the game, the rebounding, defending the low post, defending his position and reacting in the half-court game. His career is going to be long enough. He's going to be a scorer in this league two or three years from now."

A month ago at this time Valanciunas was pressing. The touches were not there every night, his scoring numbers dipped, as did his playing time. More often than not Casey would opt for a smaller, more experienced lineup late in games. Valanciunas was frustrated.

Then the card went up in his locker. He sees it nearly each day, before and after every home game. Currently, he's playing some of the best basketball of his young career. Whether his improved play is related or a happy coincidence, he has been carrying out the very tasks Casey and company have been emphasizing.

In Sunday's win over Atlanta, Valanciunas recorded his team-leading 19th double-double of the season after totaling eight as a rookie a year ago. He played 33 minutes, attempting just four shots while matching a career-high with nine made free throws. His impact on the game was understated, yet significant.

His point production has gone up but, as Casey points out, he's not necessarily seeing more touches. Instead he's working for them. He's running the floor, he's rebounding, he's getting to the line and as a result he's playing more and closing out games. He understands how his bread is buttered, at least for the time being.

"I'm not a scoring machine," Valanciunas acknowledged. "I'm a worker. My job is to get a rebound, to set a screen to make DeMar (DeRozan) open, or Kyle (Lowry) open, or [Ross] open, whoever is playing on the perimeter. My job is to box out [and] go for offensive rebounds. That's my job."

In less than four weeks, Valanciunas will make his first playoff appearance. Although he's peaking at the right time of season, the internal expectations haven't changed. Outwork your man, set hard screens, box out, run the floor, do the little things. He's heard them every day since arriving in training camp five months ago. He's practiced them. Only now, handwritten in bright, unmistakable lettering, they stare him in the face.

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