||10-07-2012 04:04 AM
Valanciunas expected to have a big impact
HALIFAX -- While the rest of the Toronto Raptors practised, Jonas Valanciunas slowly and methodically did side steps with a resistance cord looped in an X around his legs.
Alex McKechnie, the team's director of sports science and a man Valanciunas has come to know well over the past week and a half, watched intently.
It's not exactly how the young Lithuanian rookie envisioned his first NBA training camp.
But while the biggest story of Raptors camp has yet to join his new team on the court -- he's sidelined with a calf strain -- that hasn't dampened the enthusiasm for the player who's expected to have a big impact on the team, and with Toronto basketball fans.
"As a 20-year-old, to have the kind of energy, the kind of enthusiasm, the kind of personality, as a seven-footer -- it's a tough package to find, but we found it," said Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo.
Toronto opens its pre-season Monday against visiting Real Madrid, but the Raptors are being cautious with one of their most valuable assets. Besides, they've already waited a year for Valanciunas, who they selected with the No. 5 pick in the 2011 draft but left over in Europe for another year of development.
Patience isn't coming quite so easily for Valanciunas.
"It's kind of hard watching guys running the floor, playing basketball," he said Friday at the Canada Games Centre. "But it's been a big improvement, I've increased my work, I'm happy, it's feeling much better."
"He wants to get out there so bad," said guard John Lucas III. "But we constantly keep telling him 'Get healthy, it's a long season, just get healthy."'
Valanciunas (pronounced vah-lahn-CHEW-nahs) averaged 14.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks a game in the Lithuanian league last season, and was named both the FIBA Europe Young Men's Player of the Year in 2011, and The Most Entertaining Player at the Lithuanian league all-star game.
Colangelo has high hopes for the young player who he said "represents a big chunk of the future of this franchise."
Valanciunas is a high-energy player who loves contact.
"His let's-go button is already pushed," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said.
Despite not being able to join his teammates on the court, Valanciunas has carried himself with good humour this week. At the season-opening media day, he playfully covered his eyes under the glare of the camera lights, and asked for a pair of sunglasses.
"He's a funny guy, he's laidback and he's fun to be around," said fellow Lithuanian Linas Kleiza, a funny guy in his own right.
Asked how the two initially met, Kleiza said: "On an online dating site."
Valanciunas is already seemingly more at ease in the spotlight than Toronto's other key European big man Andrea Bargnani.
"Personality gets you far in this business. You know that," Colangelo said on media day. "If there's one thing that I think that you in the media have struggled with is just (Bargnani's) reluctance to fully open up. That's not a knock on Andrea. That might just be who he is. That doesn't make him a bad guy. But it's who he is right now.
"Jonas is a contradiction to that. If you can find a way to perform and have that kind of personality, everyone will respond in a very positive way."
The young centre is already a huge star in his home country of 3.2 million people where basketball is easily the most popular sport.
Valanciunas has called the game "a second religion" in Lithuania, which won bronze in the 1992 Olympics, beating Russia in the bronze-medal game two years after the country gained independence in the breakup of the Soviet Union.
"It is (very popular), it's been like that for a very long time, people love it, it's their game, they're proud of it," Kleiza said. "The national team, we always have high expectations, and it's fun to play for your country because we have a lot of people behind you."
Valanciunas and Kleiza were among a handful of Raptors who went whale-watching on Thursday. They didn't see any whales but did catch some fish. Valanciunas, an avid fisherman, posted a picture on Twitter holding his catch.
"That's my hobby, fishing's my hobby. And hunting. I like animals, I like nature," Valanciunas said.
"I caught a big fish. Mine was the biggest one," Kleiza said. "But before I pulled it out I let it go. It was a good time."
While they went fishing, Casey and a couple of players went to a museum to learn about Canada's history in the underground railroad.
"It was a very informative visit," Casey said. "I didn't realize how important Canada was as far as the underground railroad system, helping slaves move here to find safe homes here."
The Raptors cap their Halifax camp with an intra-squad game at the Metro Centre on Saturday that is open to the public.