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Chisholm: Valanciunas dominates at U19 tournament

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Tim Chisholm
7/11/2011 3:01:23 PM
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So Jonas Valanciunas dominated the U19 FIBA Championships, winning gold and the MVP award with 23-14-3 averages and people are surprised? He similarly dominated the U18 tournament last year, won the MVP then, too, and looked just unchallenged as Lithuania waltzed to the gold medal after a week of play. As satisfying as it must have been for Valanciunas' supporters (and as eye-opening as it must have been for Valanciunas' detractors) to see him obliterate his overmatched foes, there wasn't really a lot to learn about Valanciunas that those who have seen him play didn't already know.

What this tournament, and his exceptional play during it, might allow for, however, is a noteworthy role with the senior team this August when the Eurobasket tournament kicks off against the best in the continent. Being just 19-years-old, Valanciunas may not merit considerable minutes with the big boys in his first go with the team, so any edge he can get to earn court time (like dominating the U19 ranks), he'll take.

With the games being held in Lithuania this year, though, winning is a far higher priority than development during this tournament. Lithuania is a basketball-man country, much moreso than most realize, and they are not interested in using their national team as a testing ground for Toronto's latest draft pick. That means that for Valanciunas to actually get minutes, he'll have to earn them, though fortunately for him two factors may actually play in his favor to getting that time.

First is the most regrettable situation facing Lithuania this summer: the absence of Linas Kleiza. While Raptors fans have seemingly completely soured on Klieza, he was a force during last summer's third-place finish at the World Championships, averaging 19 ppg, 7.1 rpg and 52.4% from the floor. Over the course of the tournament, he scored nearly twice as many points as Lithuania's next highest scorer (Mantas Kalnietis) and his absence (due to the microfracture surgery he underwent mid-season) will force Lithuania to completely re-imagine their attack heading into this tournament.

They will likely focus a lot more on an even greater perimeter attack featuring Kalnietis, Martynas Pocius, Jonas Maciulis and Tomas Delininkatitis, and that strategy will require a strong rebounding and screen-setting presence, and both are areas where Valanciunas excels.

Valanciunas is a terrific rebounder and that skill should translate well to the Eurobasket tournament. While he won't get nearly enough minutes to average anywhere near the 14 rpg he averaged in the U19 tournament, the 5.4 rpg he averaged in Euroleague play with Lietuvos Rytas last season is a fair expectation. He did that in just 15 minutes per game, which translates to 14.6 rebounds per 40 minutes, so the pace is only slightly under his U19 output, but it was against much stronger competition.

In World Championship play last season, Lithuania's two best rebounders after Kleiza were Palius Jankunas and Simas Jasaitis, two forwards that each averaged 5.0 rpg, and even if both could notch up their production a little, it's not likely going to be enough for Lithuania to succeed with a heavily jump shot-based attack. Such a scenario could see Valanciunas on the court more than he might otherwise have been if Lithuania were operating at full potential this summer, but if he can make use of that time, Lithuania's coaching staff surely won't mind.

The other factor working in Valanciunas' favor this summer is his size, specifically his 7-foot frame and his 7-foot-2 wingspan. As talented as they are, Lithuania is not a big team. Their tallest rotation player last year was veteran center Robertas Javtokas at 6-foot-11, and he isn't exactly a rebounding or shot blocking force for the club.

While Lithuania was fine to throw lots of forwards onto the floor last year, highlighted by Kleiza, who played mostly power forward for the club, having a skilled seven-footer like Valanciunas to throw out there in certain situations must certainly appeal to a club that fields one of the smaller lineups of the power teams in the tournament. Throw in the fact that guys like Joakim Noah, Marcin Gortat and the Gasols could be taking part this summer and suddenly having a guy like Valanciunas in reserve becomes something of an asset, even if he is a little young to be cracking the senior rotation.

Either way, Valanciunas used his play last week to really demonstrate the kinds of things he's capable of in an ideal setting, and it was a fine introduction to lots of skeptical Raptors fans just weeks removed from the draft. He was expected to dominate like he did a season ago and he did just that, opening up a lot of eyes along the way now that he's technically an NBA player-in-waiting.

If he can parlay that achievement, though, into meaningful minutes during Eurobasket, especially if he can go head-to-head against some NBA-calibre competition, then that would be a much better barometer for where he is in his preparedness to come over for the Raptors in 2012. Relish in his dominance today, Raptors fans, and wait for August to see if he'll get a chance to test his mettle against some real competition on the world stage.

Jonas Valanciunas  (Photo: Canadian Press)

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(Photo: Canadian Press)
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