With Thursday's 80-77 win over Serbia, Lithuania ends their play at EuroBasket, and Jonas Valanciunas ends his coming-out party after being drafted fifth overall by the Toronto Raptors in June, winning the FIBA U19 MVP in July and making his Lithuanian senior team debut in August. For a player that was looked upon derisively by Raptors fans only 11 weeks ago, his turnaround (as a result of his strong play all summer) has been as swift as has been thorough.
It's hard to encounter anyone who has watched Valanciunas this summer who has not come away impressed by the ultra-aggressive seven-footer. While he still has a lot of growing up to do as a basketball player, if he can capitalize on his limitless promise, the Toronto Raptors may have just found their future franchise player.
However, as promising as things look today, this summer's tournament is a stark reminder of just how quickly such promising starts can turn into middling futures. All one has to do is tune in to watch Spain play in the EuroBasket tournament and see how far Ricky Rubio's stock has dropped since being selected fifth overall just two years ago.
At the EuroBasket tournament in Poland in 2009, the recently-drafted Ricky Rubio was in the exact same position as Valanciunas was this summer, the attraction everyone was lining up to see. While followers of international basketball were well aware of him (especially after his play in the 2008 Olympic Games), for many it was the first opportunity for them to sit up and take notice of the flamboyant Spanish point guard.
At the time, in fact, he had many claiming he was the Next Great Point Guard because of his deft passing skills and advanced court vision. He put up strong numbers that summer, including 3.9 assists and 1.4 steals per game in just 22.7 minutes per game, starting in place of the injured Jose Calderon, and it looked like the sky was the limit for Rubio, who was to spend two more years in Spain before coming over to join the Wolves (which he did this summer).
Since 2009, though, things haven't worked out exactly as Rubio's supporters had expected. While his passing and court vision are still marvelous assets, Rubio has struggled to improve in other areas of the game, namely his ability to score the ball. Rubio is a wretched shooter, and because of that, his opponents have taken to playing off of him and cutting off his passing lanes, making him a significantly lessened threat at the point of attack. FC Barcelona, his team for the last two years, even took the one-time prodigy out of the starting lineup because his plusses simply couldn't outweigh the minuses of his game-to-game liabilities.
While he still has all of the same "upside" that he had when he was drafted ahead of Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan and Brandon Jennings, he also has many people wondering if he's ever going to capitalize on all of that potential given how little growth he's shown since draft night. It's a question that now faces Valanciunas as he begins his new life in the spotlight.
This much we know: next summer, Valanciunas will officially be a signed-and-delivered Toronto Raptor. Unlike Rubio, he will only be playing a single season in Europe (for Lietuvos Rytas) before coming to the NBA, and also unlike Rubio he'll be with the same team he was with before the draft (Rubio switched to the much higher regarded FC Barcelona in 2009). However, like Rubio he'll be wearing a huge target on his back when he goes back to play his upcoming season, with opponents likely to try and target him now that's considered such an elite NBA prospect. Also, there will be far greater scrutiny over his game, both within the team and outside of it, a factor that some say wreaked emotional havoc with Rubio as the critics piled on to his lack of improvement in shooting, even perhaps to the detriment of his development.
Sudden expectations can be a cruel thing. While in the AAU and NCAA universes, such expectations are laid on kids at 12 or 13 but the same timelines are not always as severe with European prospects. While that is probably for the best in many regards, the sudden overwhelming burden of increased expectations is still a lot to bear for any 19-or-20-year-old prospect.
Now, no one is saying that Valanciunas and Rubio have anything more in common than the most superficial elements to their situations. Nor is anyone saying that the same pitfalls even exist for one because they existed for the other. Rather, all one has to consider is that, like Rubio, Valanciunas is as intriguing now because of his potential as he is because of his current talent. Sometimes people can run away with their expectations of players based on the very nebulous idea of potential, and it would be prudent for Raptors fans to be cautious following such a track.
Keep a close eye on Valanciunas this season in Lithuania, watch him actually play if you can, and let THAT be your guide for what you expect from him. Don't get too carried away with what he could be down the road - allow it to be a 'what if' scenario rather than a definite destination you demand that he reach.
Opinions of Valanciunas have shifted rapidly in Toronto and Canada this summer, perhaps too rapidly, and it may be time to take a breath and remember that we're talking about a 19-year-old that is still developing his body and learning the nuances of the game of basketball. While he is undoubtedly the most intriguing talent the Raptors have had in their fold since they drafted Chris Bosh eight years ago, allow him to show you what he is going to become, rather than telling him what you expect him to become. Minnesota is receiving considerably less in Rubio than they thought they were getting after selling him as the future of their franchise two summers ago so try and allow Valanciunas to escape that same fate this year.