Jonas Valanciunas: Worth the Wait

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.

Toronto’s rookie center Jonas Valanciunas, with the help of head coach Dwane Casey, will be turning heads in no time. (www.nba.com)

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.

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Rookie Ratings: Rookies Continue to Grow and Impress

Damian Lillard contiues to impress throught the early stages of the season (nwsportsbeat.com)

As the season continues to grow, so do our rookies.  Now a solid two weeks into their first season-long campaign, some Rooks are on the rise while others may seem to be falling off the charts.

1) Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers, PG

Lillard continues to impress in Portland, as the youngster is now averaging a rookie-high 18.4 ppg, a rookie-high 6.6 apg, and a respectable 3.1 rpg.  Regardless of the competition, Lillard has shown up for every game, scoring in double-digits in every contest so far.  The Trail Blazers may be struggling somewhat in the win-loss column, but Lillard is doing everything he can to help this team.
Last week’s rating: 1 (No change)

2) Anthony Davis, New Orleans Hornets, PF

Davis made a strong push for the number 1 spot this week, but still unfortunately can’t match Lillard’s production.  Davis is leading all rookies with 7.0 rpg and an amazing 2.75 bpg (good for fourth in the entire league).  While his FG% might not be as dynamite as some would expect from a big man, he’s still averaging 15.0 ppg and shooting lights-out from the free-throw line as a big (.818%).
Last week’s rating: 2 (No change)

3) Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte Bobcats, SF

MKG makes a nice jump in the standings this week after showing people that his selection as No. 2 was no fluke.  Kidd-Gilchrist exploded for 25 points and 12 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks in a 101-97 OT win for the Bobcats, and followed that performance with 15 and 8 against the Washington Wizards in a 92-76 victory.  There’s no mystery as to why Charlotte has now won three straight games; MKG is turning out to be a difference maker for the very young team.
Last week’s rating: 6 (+3)

4) Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors, C

Valanciunas has continued to impress above the border.  Averaging 8.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg and 0.6 bpg, Val is continuing to show why the Raptors didn’t mind waiting for him before he came over to the NBA this year.  Dwayne Casey is continuing to salivate at the idea of turning Valanciunas into a defensive force, and it’s only a matter of time until he gets to that next level.
Last week’s rating: 4 (No change)

5) Dion Waiters, Cleveland Cavaliers, SG

After a hot start to the season, Waiters cools off ever so slightly, but still finds himself contributing greatly to a young Cavs team that has needed his offense.  Waiters is averaging 14.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg, and 2.1 apg, and has been very efficient from three-point land (.486%).  His free-throw percentage needs work, though (.588%).
Last week’s rating: 3 (-2)

6) Alexey Shved, Minnesota Timberwolves, PG

Shved makes his first appearance in the rankings after having a strong second week, after scoring in double-digits multiple times and helping the injury-plagued Timberwolves to a 5-3 start.  Shved is averaging 9.0 ppg, 3.9 ppg, and 3.1 rpg, all respectable numbers for someone who isn’t even getting starters minutes.  Shved may struggle as veterans start to figure him out, but he’s turning out to be a great fill-in for Ricky Rubio while Rubio recovers from an ACL injury.
Last week’s rating: N/A

7) Harrison Barnes, Golden State Warriors, SF

Barnes has seen his numbers improve since last week, and his ranking has done the same: 9.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg, and 1.3 apg, while moving up from 10th on last week’s list.  Barnes also recorded his first career double-double last time out in a close 92-88 victory against the Hawks where all of Barnes 19 points and 13 rebounds were needed to secure the win.
Last week’s rating: 10 (+3)

8) Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons, C

Drummond has continued to play strong off the bench for Detroit, as his averages have jumped to 6.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, and 1.0 bpg.  Drummond still looks raw on the court, but he has a great mentor in Greg Monroe (see: 2012-2013 triple-double leaders) and seems to enjoy coming off the bench as a spark plug for the Pistons.  Embracing one’s role is the first step to reaching the next level.
Last week’s rating: N/A

9) Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards, SG

Beal, like the Wizards, has fallen off in our rankings, but he’s still putting up solid numbers: 11.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, and 1.9 apg.  His field-goal percentage has seemingly hit rock bottom, though, as he’s averaging 16% from the field over his last two games.  Teams are keying in on Beal in John Wall’s absence and it’s showing; Beal can only hope Wall will be back soon.
Last week’s rating: 9 (No change)

10) Jae Crowder, Dallas Mavericks, SF

Crowder, a poor-man’s Ron Artest (minus the head case), has been performing nicely for the Mavs in Shawn Marion’s absence due to injury.  Crowder is averaging 7.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg, and 1.3 apg.  Given more opportunities from the field (Crowder’s only attempted 55 shots), Jae’s numbers could easily jump, helping to give the young colt more confidence.
Last week’s rating: 5 (-5)

Rookie Impact: Looking Back While Looking Ahead

It was quite a preseason, to say the least.  The Toronto Raptors were an Eastern Conference-best 6-1, the Los Angeles Lakers were an NBA-worst 0-8, and the rookies came out to play.

With the preseason officially coming to a close Friday night and everyone resting before tomorrow night’s season opener, it’s time to review the top performances from the league’s newest members in the final Rookie Impact before tip-off.

Player(s) of the Preseason:

Damian Lillard lead the Class of 2012 with an impressive 16.2 ppg, 2.5 rpg, and an impressive 5.8 apg.  His point total was higher than that of any other rookie, as well as his output of assists.  Lillard also showed consistency in his play by never scoring fewer than 12 points in a game and averaging no less than 3 assists per game.

Anthony Davis should have an enjoyable rookie season, where he could challenge for DPOY, and ROY is between him and Lillard. (ksrcollege.com)

Anthony Davis is living up to his draft expectations, as he average 14.9 ppg and 9.9 ppg for the New Orleans Hornets during the preseason.  He was also third among rookies in blocks per game with 1.57 behind only Jonas Valanciunas and John Henson.  While Davis sometimes struggled to put the ball in the basket (2-for-12, 4-for-12, etc.), his effort on the defensive end was obvious, and helped the Hornets to a 4-4 finish.

Undrafted rookie Chris Copeland earned himself a roster spot with the New York Knicks after averaging 15.5 ppg for the New York Knicks with a .517 clip from the field.  Copeland should be able to spell Carmelo Anthony should he fall flat during a game, or need long periods of rest.  Copeland is also very accurate from the free-throw line, shooting 81% during the preseason.

Jared Sullinger proved that he can play with the big boys of Beantown.  While he didn’t record a single double-double in the preseason, Sullinger filled the stat sheet on an otherwise deep roster, showing that he can play when other stacked teams come to town.  Sullinger also impressed head coach Doc Rivers, which is not an easy task, as Rivers has been impartial to younger players in the past; Sullinger earned the coach’s trust, and could be the starting power forward for doing so.

End of the Bench, Rook:

Charlotte’s second-overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist struggled mightily during the preseason as he averaged only 5 ppg.  It’s hard to expect much out of MKG offensively, given that his jump shot is still developing, and that Charlotte is now focusing more on the defensive side of the ball.  Yet it’s hard to see MKG battling for the all-rookie first-team at the end of the season if his offensive output doesn’t improve.  His defensive intensity, however, and overall knowledge of the game will help him to remain involved as he works through his growing pains.

Kendall Marshall of the Phoenix Suns also had a frustrating preseason.  The North Carolina product averaged a mere 3 points per game this preseason.  Marshall, who was drafted to coincide with Steve Nash leaving, is expected to be the point guard of the future for Phoenix.  Yet it is clear that the team doesn’t think he’s ready just yet, especially with Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola in their primes, and Michael Beasley finally starting to play better basketball.  Give him time, though, and Marshall should excel as he did at UNC.

Golden State got an absolute steal in the draft when the polished collegiate product Draymond Green fell to them at 35 overall.  Green, however, didn’t get a lot of court time, and his numbers suffered greatly because of it.  The Warriors’ rookie only averaged 3.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, and 1.8 apg.  For someone coming off a triple-double in his last NCAA Tournament, Green has quite a lot of competition to get back to that level of productivity.

Dallas drafted Jared Cunningham with the thought of him taking over for either Jason Terry or Vince Carter in the long run, due to his solid shooting skills, and his athletic ability.  Yet the Mavs, who are in win-now mode, signed O.J. Mayo this offseason, which limited Cunningham’s minutes.  The Mavs’ first-round pick only averaged 3.9 ppg, 1 rpg, and 0.9 apg.  While he has the time on the bench, Cunningham should be asking as many questions as he can of his veteran teammates now, so that he can take over for them when the right time comes.

Keep an Eye On:

While Cunningham struggled, his teammate Jae Crowder had a very enjoyable preseason.  Crowder, who found himself starting several games due to injury, took advantage of the opportunity and could also start the season opener due to a lack of big men.  The Marquette alum averaged 11.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg, and led all rookies with 1.88 steals per game.  Expect the rookie’s defense to keep his name in constant conversation throughout the season for the all-rookie first-team.

With John Wall out for six or so more weeks, Bradley Beal will have a lot of pressure from hardcore Washington fans to produce for the team.  Beal, though, is up for the task.  While his play was inconsistent throughout the preseason, he still finished with averages of 11.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg, and 2.5 apg, and should provide Washington with a wonderful two-guard for years to come; for now, he will most likely fly under the radar without Wall by his side, but it’s probably best for him to focus on his play rather than the critics.

Andre Drummond had a productive preseason coming off the bench for Greg Monroe.  While not expected to do much, Drummond had an exciting month of putback dunks and alley-oops.  Yet his defense was the most exciting part, as he had multiple games where dunks and rebounding looked as second nature to the man as breathing.  Drummond’s role probably won’t expand much in his rookie campaign, but if he can consistently deliever 8 to 10 points and 7 to 9 rebounds off the bench, Detroit could have found themselves a solid big-man in the making.

Rookies Thinking Big

Teammates only a year ago, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said he can’t wait to face his former U of K companion Anthony Davis on the big stage. (www.bleacherreport.com)

It’s one thing to come into the league and say you plan on making a difference.

It’s another thing to actually follow through on your word.

Two rookies, 2nd overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of the Charlotte Bobcats and last year’s 5th overall pick Jonas Valanciunas, both have their sites set on some pretty big competition this year.  The two have already pinpointed who they can’t wait to square off against this season and while the big names coincide with big men, the results shouldn’t surprise anyone.

In the Bobcats live Media Day chat earlier this week, Kidd-Gilchrist said he can’t wait to square off against former Kentucky teammate, and this year’s No. 1 overall draft pick, Anthony Davis.  Valanciunas, however, has his sights set on someone closer to his size, but with a much larger resume than he; Valanciunas can’t wait to square off against Dwight Howard.

It’s good to see rookies want to step up right away when entering the league and facing off against stiffer competition.  It’s even better when they actually give an answer instead of the usual run-around response of “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, I just want to make sure I’m ready for the next game.”

Here’s to Kidd-Gilchrist and Valanciunas having great first games against those they can’t wait to face off against the most.  With that in mind, the Bobcats and Hornets first meet Tuesday, October 9 in a preseason matchup and officially on Friday, November 9 in New Orleans.  Valanciunas will have plenty of time to prepare for Howard, as the Raptors and Lakers don’t square off until Sunday, January 20.

Media Day Has Arrived

Well, it’s about time!  Media Day is finally here!

If you’ve visited twitter in the past couple of hours to try to follow your favorite team and incoming players, you’ve most likely seen an influx of tweets flying your way.  Yet trying to follow the incoming personal posts, it may be just as easy to tune into each teams live online Media Day news conference.  Here are a few teams that are holding theirs now:

Charlotte Bobcats: After a dismal season last year, the Cats will have plenty of questions flying their way about how they plan on improving this season.  Help will most definitely come in the form of incoming rookies SF Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and SF Jeffrey Taylor.

Washington Wizards: John Wall is out for the first eight weeks of the season, which may give rookie PG Tomas Satoransky some time off the bench, or at least a guarenteed roster spot.  Also, much will be expected from SG Bradley Beal to provide plenty of scoring in Wall’s absence.  With the expanded workload, Beal could easily falter, or boost his ROY stock to start the season.

Toronto Raptors: The Raptors have quite a lot of new blood within the organization.  Super-rookie C Jonas Valanciunas will finally be making his league debut, and should flourish in Dwane Casey’s defensive system.  SG Terrence Ross has also looked impressive throughout the summer, and F Quincy Acy is sure to provide a spark either in the starting line-up or off the bench.  However, those are crucial roster spots to try and blend together in the preseason, and the Raptors may face difficulties putting everything in place.

For more live video coverage throughout the day, NBA.com will be providing live feeds for teams throughout the afternoon.

The calendar has turned; the leaves will turn soon, too.  And the long summer break from NBA action has now turned; Media Day has arrived.