The first time Jonas Valanciunas showed his face on the international level, he was nothing more than skin and bones a raw, timid 16-year-old star struck by the bright lights of Madison Square Garden at the Jordan Brand Classic international game in April, 2008.
That was the first of many epic showdowns Valanciunas would have with Turkish phenom Enes Kanter, and while the future Kentucky student had his way in New York City en route to 22 points, 17 rebounds and a well-deserved MVP award, the Lithuanian did little to hint that he would develop into arguably the most talented prospect in European basketball just a few years later.
These were the first baby steps Valanciunas would take on the international level, but the talented youngster would progress quickly. First came the NBA Basketball without Borders camp in Istanbul in June, where Valanciunas began to show real potential. Then the Under-16 European Championships in Italy in July, where he led the tournament in rebounding and blocks, and most importantly, helped his team win the championship.
The following May, we were able to see Valanciunas once again, this time in a more natural environment at the Euroleague's Nike International Junior Tournament in Berlin. He had an eye-opening performance under the watchful eye of some key NBA decision makers, helping his team make the finals and making the tournament's all-first team along the way. Valanciunas' body was slowly but surely filling out and he was a much more confident and intense player than he was a year before. His work was starting to pay off.
All Valanciunas has done since is continue to improve steadily every time we've seen him. There he was in the U-18 European Championships in Metz in the summer of 2009, going up against arch-rival Enes Kanter in a pair of epic matchups that frequently get mentioned by NBA scouts as pivotal moments in their evaluations. 19.3 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, on 72% FG and 79% FT were the final tallies in France.
And there he was again in the Under-18s the following summer, helping Lithuania win the European Championship and hoisting the tournament MVP trophy after averaging 19.4 points (70% FG, 78% FT), 13.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks.
In between, Valanciunas has continued to progress from year to year on the club level, starting in hometown Utena in the Lithuanian third division, then moving to Perlas Vilnius in the second division and later to Lietuvos Rytas in the first division.
This year, he is competing in the highest level of European basketball in the Euroleague as well, and ranks as one of the top players in the competition on a per-40 minute basis in points (21.8), rebounds (13.6), blocks (1.8), field goal percentage (74.4%), free throw percentage (87.5%), and fouls (9.1). That's quite an accomplishment for a skinny 18-year-old.
The natural question to ask would beWhere will it end? The answer to which seems quite obvious: shaking David Stern's hand at the NBA Draft.
How Valanciunas managed to make such large strides over the last two and a half years is a more interesting question to ponder.
The answer to that one is a bit more complex, which is why boarded a plane to Lithuania (and Croatia) to watch him play and speak with him face to face.
Standing 6-6 ½ when he arrived in Vilnius in February of 2007, Valanciunas has grown at least four inches since (I'm now 210 centimeters [almost 6-11] without shoes, he informed us) and has slowly grown into his excellent frame. He's retained all of the quickness he had earlier on in his career and still sports a mammoth 7-6 wingspan, (again according to him.)
I have very long arms, Valanciunas says modestly, with a smile. It helps a lot.
All the physical tools in the world wouldn't mean anything if he didn't have the will to use them, though. Fortunately for Valanciunas, he's an incredibly intense competitor, a boundlessly energetic player who never stops working for a moment and whose presence is constantly felt on the court.
He runs the floor extremely well, is quick off his feet and has no qualms whatsoever about throwing his body around in the paint. Not one to just stand around and wait for opportunities to come to him, Valanciunas wants to be productive all the time, which is a big reason he's been able to earn playing time in such a demanding environment this season, despite his obvious immaturity.
I don't have very good skills right now, many good moves, so I have to fight, he tells us.
Essentially an afterthought in Lietuvos Rytas' offense, Valanciunas satisfies his hunger for touches through his work on the offensive glass. The largest portion of his offense (27%) comes from this area according to Synergy Sports Technology, a testament to his length, quickness, timing, hands, activity level and instincts. He pulls down over five offensive rebounds for every 40 minutes he's on the floor, and watching him play, it's not difficult to tell why.
As attractive a skill as his offensive rebounding might be, Valanciunas' most important source of scoring comes from his ability to finish plays created for him by teammates around the basket. He takes special pride in his ability to operate as a pick-and-roll finisher -- That's my basketball, he said. This is a skill that should translate to the NBA immediately.
Valanciunas does a good job setting screens and then rolling to the basket with pinpoint timing, arms high in the air, vigorously pleading for the ensuing pass. He has extremely soft hands and attacks the rim with real purpose, elevating above the rim and finishing strong, with a dunk if possible and preferably an emphatic one at that.
He realizes he's not going to be able to back his man down at this stage in his development (My points are not from playing on the low post, he admits) and thus does his best to put himself in position to receive the ball and convert these plays as effectively as he can.
It seems to be working. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Valanciunas has had 52 possessions thus far this season deemed as pick-and-rolls or cuts to the basket, and has scored or drawn a foul on 42 of them. When unable to finish with a dunk, he shows very nice touch around the basket, often using the glass softly.
While Valanciunas' length and athleticism clearly play a big role in his success here, it's his toughness and fearlessness that really stand out the most. He's not afraid to challenge opponents, even if that means taking a nasty spill to the floor and tasting the hardwood.
Valanciunas also gets some opportunities from time to time in post-up situations, an area that he's not nearly as proficient. He lacks the girth to establish deep position inside the paint at the Euroleague level, even if that doesn't stop him from trying.
Against weaker opponents, he can put the ball down once or twice and dig a bit for better position to get his jump hook off (showing nice touch and great extension around the rim), but he doesn't really have the strength to finish through contact against high-level opponents.
He needs to work on his left hand and get quicker and more proficient with his foot-work and counter moves, as he doesn't look terribly natural creating his own shot down low.
Valanciunas is largely untested on the perimeter at the moment. He's taken one jumper this seasona surprisingly confident looking 3-pointer with the shot clock running out against Zalgiris. It went in.
Although we don't have very much data to work with right now (I don't have opportunities to shoot, he tells us. My job to play in the low post,) it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect that he'll become at least a capable mid-range shooter down the road.
The most shocking part of Valanciunas' game, in fact, might be his free throw percentage he's made 43 of his 50 (86%) free throws this season; something he's done throughout his career.
I spend a lot of time working on this, Valanciunas explains to us. After every practice I shoot around 200 free throws.
The rest of Valanciunas' game needs refinement, particularly his ball-handling and passing abilities. He turns the ball over at a pretty high rate and definitely has a ways to go in terms of improving his basketball IQ and overall experience level.
The place this seems to show up most is on the defensive end. Valanciunas is a major presence in the paint with his terrific size and length. His mobility helps him out quite a bit as well. He can contest shots around the rim and has good timing for blocking shots, even if he's not what you would call a high-flyer.
With that said, he's not the smartest, most reactive player you'll find right now, especially on the perimeter, which can lead to some poor rotations and open shots for opponents.
Interestingly enough, even when you see him getting beat at times outside the paint he still has the ability to recover and make a play at the rim, which is a testament to his foot speed and wingspan.
Nevertheless, he's still gaining experience and learning the nuances of the game on this end, which is one of the main things holding him back from getting even more playing time for Rytas.
Inside the paint, Valanciunas is a frequent target for opposing teams to post up due to his narrow frame and lack of experience, especially in the Euroleague, where almost every team has a bulky old school back-to-the-basket pivot who can simply overpower Valanciunas in one-on-one situations.
That's a big reason why Valanciunas has had consistent foul problems over the course of the year -- another reason that his playing time has been limited. In the Euroleague, for example, he commits approximately one foul for every 4 minutes he's on the court.
Despite the negatives described here, Valanciunas is undoubtedly an outstanding prospect, especially when we consider that he doesn't turn 19 until May. Players with his combination of size, length, mobility, toughness and budding skills are extremely difficult to come by.
The fact that he's producing at the rate he is in the Euroleague, Lithuanian league, and VTB League at his age is an extremely positive sign. Considering the tools he has, it's safe to say that his upside to continue to improve is huge.
It's easy to see him developing into an Andris Biedrins-type rebounder/defender/hustler in the NBA, but he likely has more even potential offensively than the Latvian big man due to his superior hands and touch (he probably has more of a nasty streak too).
While the impending NBA lockout this summer looks like a major thorn in the side of most college players, for Valanciunas it couldn't be better news. He'll be able to lock himself into a very favorable spot on the NBA rookie scale by being drafted this year but will still have the opportunity to return to Lithuania for another season (if he chooses to) and come to the NBA as a much more ready prospect.
Valanciunas has some issues to work out with his buyout from Rytas still, but he unequivocally wants to play in the NBA, telling us that that's his dream in fact.
My biggest point is to go to the NBA, Valanciunas says. It's my dream. My goal is to improve so I can play in the NBA.
With that said, Valanciunas isn't necessarily willing to leave at all costs. I want to go to the NBA when I can play, he told us. Not to go there and sit on the bench. If I go and sit on the bench that not good for me and it's not good for the club.
Valanciunas' European agent, Sarunas Broga, says that its too early to say what's going to happen, but the decision about the NBA will ultimately be made by Jonas.
He plans on using the next few months to learn more about his draft stock and the teams that will likely be picking in the lotterywith the help of Valanciunas' new American agents, Leon Rose and Steven Heumann of CAAand reach an agreement with Lietuvos Rytas about a sliding buyout scale figure to get out of his contract if needed. An invitation to play in the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland in April is also in the works.
The Valanciunas camp doesn't seem to be in any rush to commit to anything at this point.
I'm thinking about making good results in basketball, Valanciunas says. If I make good results, these things will come. When the season ends I will look at everything and me and my agent will think about all. Right now we're only halfway through the season. I still have a lot of work to do. I need to focus on basketball."
Edited by Patrick Crawley, Sports Editor for Neon Tommy and Managing Editor of Basketball Fiend.