Training camp opens this week for the Toronto Raptors, and there is no player that Raptors fans want to see get to work as badly as the club's 2011 first-round draft pick, Jonas Valanciunas. After spending the last fifteen months in Europe he'll finally be suiting up for the club that drafted him, and expectations couldn't be higher. Just today, ESPN.com's John Hollinger called Valanciunas "a young center with star potential," and he echoes a sentiment that is felt up and down the halls in the Raptors' front offices.
He is seen as a major part of what the team hopes to achieve this season and beyond, as he is easily the best true centre that this team has employed since Marcus Camby last played for the club back in 1998. He is big and tall - seven-feet, 250 lbs. - he's athletic and he excels at playing defence.
He's also been sporting a walking boot of late, after suffering a left calf strain during a voluntary workout in Toronto over a week ago. The team doesn't see the injury as being serious, but he will be severely limited in training camp and that is not what the team had hoped for out of the gate with their prized rookie addition.
In fact, the last few months for Valanciunas haven't exactly been loaded with positivity. In this summer's Olympics with the Lithuanian National Team, Valanciunas struggled with consistency and saw his minutes as a starter erode as the tournament went on. For a lot of Raptors fans, many of whom were seeing Valanciunas play for the first time, it was a crushing blow to see the player that had been spoken of so highly struggle so mightily in a competition made up heavily of NBA-level competition.
The fact is that as high as hopes are for Valanciunas, he is a 20-year-old rookie who still needs a lot of refining to capitalize on the 'star potential' that was alluded to earlier.
So why is the organization so high on him? Because even in this raw, unfinished state he does things that will get him out onto the court on Day One where he'll be able to have an impact. Last season with Lietuvos Rytas he averaged 7.35 rebounds per game in just 23.2 minutes per game, and shot a sterling .623 from the field, mostly on the back of very strong pick-and-roll finishing skills. He also has a tremendous free throw percentage at .803, always an asset for a big man who likes to get active under the basket, and he blocked 1.67 shots per game last year, bringing some actual rim protection to Toronto - a must for a club that employs guys like DeMar DeRozan and Jose Calderon on the perimeter.
A half-decent rookie comparison for Valanciunas would be Chicago's Joakim Noah. In Noah's first season he played about 20 minutes per game and gave his team 6.6 ppg and 5.6 rpg with a block thrown in for good measure. He looked overmatched at times in his rookie year, and fouls were a problem, but as the years went by he learned to slow down and let the game come to him (to borrow an overused cliché) and one can fairly expect a similar learning curve for Valanciunas as he looks to find his NBA sea legs.
One thing is for sure, though: Valanciunas is going to get minutes. While he probably won't start for the club right out of the gates, he'll be used as the team's primary backup big man and his game-to-game minutes will be dictated by how well he plays. If he's struggling his minutes will be capped, but if he's excelling look for the club to ride him, even at the expense of the minutes of others in the frontcourt rotation. He's a huge part of this club's future and they are going to do their best to find time for him on the court without disrupting the team's chances of winning games this season.
Of course, Valanciunas is not the only rookie that will be cracking the rotation this season. In June the Raptors snagged another lottery pick in Terrence Ross, an athletic swingman who can shoot threes and play defence. Make no mistake, if a guy can do those two things on this team, he is going to play. The Raptors are insisting that they will feature the three-point shot more in their attack this season, and Ross is a big reason why. A lot of draft pundits felt that Ross was a reach at eight in the lottery, but his ability to hit threes and play defence endeared him greatly to the Raptors organization because those are two skills that the club is desperate for on the wings.
In fact, taken together, Valanciunas and Ross will help fill out some bare categories for the Raptors this season. The Raptors were below average last season in blocks per game (t-17th), rebounds per game (t-16th), offensive rebounds per game (23rd), three-point makes (21st) and three-point percentage (19th), and all are areas that they hope their young rookies can at least contribute to bringing up this season.
Still, as key a factor as Ross may make himself this season, as far as rookies go all eyes are going to be on Valanciunas. The interest and curiosity surrounding him is intense, and no doubt he'll be analyzed to death from game-to-game purely in response to how highly the organization has touted him since his drafting last year. If he can rebound like he did with Lietuvos Rytas (rebound rate tends to stay pretty consistent throughout the basketball leagues), provide some measure of defence at the basket and work the pick-and-roll effectively with Kyle Lowry and Jose Calderon he'll give himself a great base to work from heading into next season and beyond.
Can he live up to expectations? Unlikely in Year One. Valanciunas brings some nice things to the table today, but the team's real excitement over him is based on what he can be in two or three years. This season, don't look for an All-Star, instead see if you can find any seeds that might eventually allow Valanciunas to grow into one. Maybe they'll be there, maybe they won't, but you can bet that the Raptors are going to play him plenty to find out.
That is, as soon as he gets out of that boot.