International teams have always been seen as different from professional teams here in the good ‘ol U-S-of-A. Playing styles are labeled with words such as “finesse”, and sometimes “soft”. Players are no exception from these labels.
Pau Gasol, one of the more well-known names among international bigs, has been called soft on multiple occasions as he sometimes prefers to step back and take a 17-foot jumper rather than take charge and drive to the basket. Prior to almost single-handedly winning an NBA Championship, Dirk Nowitzkireceived much of the same criticism.
Enter rookie Jonas Valanciunas. Drafted by Toronto with the 5th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft (he opted to stay in Lithuania last year), Valanciunas has been brought along slowly in his first season in the league, averaging 20.5 minutes per game; however, Valanciunas earned head coach DwaneCasey’s trust and respect early enough that those minutes have all been accumulated as a starter through all eleven of Toronto’s games this season.Last night proved to be Valanciunas’ best night of a young, but soon-to-be long and prosperous career. J-Val recorded 11 points on 3-of-6 shooting (5-of-6 FT), 11 boards, 3 blocked shots, and no personal fouls, a weak point in Valanciunas’ game so far. This stat line (also, Valanciunas’ first career double-double) was overshawdowed by another unfortunate Toronto loss.
Yet there is plenty of hope for Jonas’ followers.
First and foremost, Casey loves defense. He was hired to help instill a defensive mindset to an otherwise offensive based team, especially when it comes to Toronto’s bigs (see: Andrea Bargnani, Chris Bosh, Charlie Villanueva, etc.). Secondly, Toronto isn’t known for it’s basketball. The last time going to a Raptors game was exciting was when George W. Bush was running for re-election and the Boston Red Sox were breaking an 86-year-old curse. While games may still seem like a drag, and are more likely to still end in a loss, something is brewing north of the border.
Given time, Valanciunas will be able to redefine what most think about international big men. It may take a few more years (starting with tonight’s game against the Bobcats), but it will be worth the wait.