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Lewenberg: Raptors' Valanciunas experiences growing pains

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Josh Lewenberg
12/19/2013 10:44:23 PM
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TORONTO - Although Wednesday's overtime loss was one that Jonas Valanciunas would sooner forget than relive, his coach hopes it's something the Raptors' sophomore centre will learn from.

In what promised to be a tricky matchup for the 21-year-old, Valanciunas held his own against the crafty Al Jefferson offensively but was taught a lesson or two on the other end.

One of those moments occurred at the end of the extra period. Jefferson set a hard screen that freed up Kemba Walker, forcing Valanciunas to switch off and close out on the Bobcats' guard. Walker would drain the game-winner over Valanciunas as time expired.

"We've watched film with him [and] work on it with him individually," Dwane Casey said after practice Thursday afternoon. "In the NBA, a lot depends on game experience and he's seeing every different post-up situation."

Valanciunas scored 10 points and added six rebounds in 22 minutes of action Wednesday however, Jefferson poured in 24 to go along with 11 boards, leading the Bobcats with five points in overtime.

"He's still in the process, he's still learning the league, learning the speed of the game and again, he's [getting] better," Casey said, commending Valanciunas' growth on the offensive end. "I thought he did an excellent job offensively when he got his catches in the post. He's really grown from that standpoint."

His biggest challenge continues to come on the defensive end, where he's still being exposed by quicker, versatile and more experienced big men. Jefferson is a nightmare assignment for any player, let alone a young and developing big.

"My whole career, to this day, people always ask who the hardest [players] are to guard and I surprise them every time when I tell them Al Jefferson and Zach Randolph," said veteran forward and new teammate Chuck Hayes, who participated in his first full practice with the Raptors Wednesday. "For their size - they're so wide - they're light on their feet and they've got great footwork and their shooting touch is just as good as any guard in the league."

"It sucks that [Valanciunas] went through that torture chamber in a game that we needed before this road trip but it's a learning process," Hayes continued. "We'll see them again, I'm sure and he'll remember that overtime where Al got the best of him."

Although Valanciunas shares the blame for what went wrong in overtime, there's plenty of it to go around. The Raptors, as a team, missed their first six field goal attempts while DeMar DeRozan shot 1-of-4. You can also cut the seven-footer some slack, given the amount of time he had spent on the bench. Valanciunas sat for over 17 minutes of game time, including the entire fourth quarter, before coming back in to start overtime.

Facing Charlotte's unconventional frontcourt of Jefferson and Josh McRoberts, a stretch four, Valanciunas became a late-game afterthought once again, sitting out in favour of Amir Johnson, Tyler Hansbrough, and the newly acquired Patrick Patterson.

As Casey notes, it is sometimes a give-and-take with Valanciunas on the floor, certainly in a matchup like Wednesday's. Whatever advantage is gained on the offensive end, assuming the team is utilizing it, is often given right back on defence. With the game on the line, Casey - like he has done in past - opted to play it safe with more experienced and versatile defenders at the position.
 
"That's why it's hard to win consistently with young players in the NBA," said the Raptors' coach. "Jonas is going to be okay but that's the patience you have to have with a young player; take the good with the bad."

While those who expected the world from Valanciunas in his second NBA season may be disappointed in the early returns, Casey is just as realistic as he is optimistic. It won't happen overnight, Casey reiterates regularly. It didn't with Tyson Chandler, it didn't with Roy Hibbert or Joakim Noah and it won't with Valanciunas.

Inevitably, developing Valanciunas will become more of a priority now that Rudy Gay has been dealt. The challenge for Casey - who is trying to win first and foremost, as you would expect - centres on finding that balance between competing and nurturing the future of the franchise, a future he may not even be a part of.

"I love the challenge of coaching young players, I enjoy that. I enjoy winning more," he said, half-jokingly. "But I understand where we are and what we're about."

Valanciunas represents the future of this team more than anyone else that is currently on the roster. The expectations, at least internally, have not changed. The word Casey continues to stress is patience.

"It's a process," he insists. "We're patient [but] he's our guy, he's our starting centre for a long time and we're just going to have to roll with it."

Jonas Valanciunas (Photo: Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)
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