LAS VEGAS - One game into the first NBA summer league action he has ever experienced and already Jonas Valanciunas is the story of the tournament.
From Sports Illustrated to ESPN to CBS, all the major U.S. media players were left in awe of the Raptors big man who made his debut in the final game of Day 2 at the Las Vegas Summer League.
That it came in a loss to a Miami Heat squad that likely doesn’t have a player who will make an NBA squad this year is beside the point.
What everyone in attendance saw was a player who has taken a solid rookie season and is already giving every indication his sophomore season will dwarf it.
The more astute critics were careful to point out that Valanciunas’ dominance is coming against players who for the most part are a couple of years behind him in their development. Normally Valanciunas would have played at least once in the summer league already considering he was drafted in 2011. But playing another year in Lithuania before his buyout was complete (the 2011 summer league was cancelled anyway, a victim of the lockout) and then helping Lithuania to qualify for the Olympics and play in them last summer kept him away.
So unlike many others, Valanciunas isn’t here to open eyes or audition for a job. He has got the job already based on that solid rookie season.
What Valanciunas is here to do is take the next step and — as harsh as this may sound — that means crushing the competition that stands opposed.
Game 1, at least the first half, was just that. A veritable crushing of the Miami Heat summer league team by a player hell bent on taking full advantage of the extra muscle he has put on.
In just over 25˝ minutes on the court, Valanciunas scored 23 points on 8-of-10 shooting and pulled down seven rebounds. That 20 of those 23 points came in the first half was telling.
At times on Saturday night, particularly in the first half when Valanciunas was fresh and not yet being doubled by the Heat at every touch, you actually feared for the poor defender who tried to put his body between Valanciunas and the basket.
A large part of it was sheer size. Valanciunas, listed at 7-feet and 240 pounds although appearing heavier, towered and dwarfed every player on the court. But the other part was will and where players would go into the paint full of intent, Valanciunas was driving to the hoop like a man possessed. Anyone that got in his way did so at their own peril.
If you’ve every seen the Seinfeld episode where Kramer dominates at the kiddie dojo, you will have a pretty good idea of what went on Saturday night.
The one-man Valanciunas show lasted just the first half however. This Heat squad, which saw a similar horror show just two days earlier in Orlando when they took on Andre Drummond made the proper halftime adjustment and sent two bodies to Valanciunas every time he touched the ball for the rest of the night.
That combined with what Valanciunas admitted was some heavy legs in the second half meant the domination was limited to 20 minutes rather than the full game.
That was true of every one of the Raptors who seemed gassed in the second half while the conditioned Heat team, courtesy of a week together in Orlando, already owned the second half.
But in the end no player in the game, or as some pointed out no player thus far in the tournament, stood out like Valanciunas.
He is noticeably thicker through the chest and that added strength was obvious as defenders would try to impede his progress only to be brushed past like they were pylons.
Predictably, Valanciunas took no delight in the performance. One of a rare breed of humble players in the NBA, Valanciunas is more Jose Calderon than, say, TJ Ford in his approach to the game.
It’s all about the team and when the team loses, even in an insignificant game like a Summer League game, there is little to be happy about.
Asked specifically what he is looking to get from this 11-day tournament, Valanciunas gave a similar answer to pretty much the same question when he first arrived in Toronto.
“I want to get better like always,” he said. “Every game, every practice, every minute on the court I want to get better. This is the same way.”
Re: Bulked-up Jonas Valanciunas is dominating Summer League
he definitely looks a lot stronger. Love how he has played, really throwing his body around and making his presence known in the paint. You can tell players are trying to avoid him on penetration, I expect him to chance a lot of shots this year even if he doesn't get a lot of blocks.
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia -- Jonas Valanciunas watched the game unfold in his mother's living room, the 11-year-old's heart beating ever faster, his imagination running wild. Lithuania held a 14-point lead over Spain at the end of the third quarter in Stockholm in the EuroBasket final of 2003. It seemed so easy, so predictable.
Then Pau Gasol stepped up, on his way to scoring 36 points. Tensions rose.
"I remember how they came back," recounts Valanciunas, now a center for the Toronto Raptors.
In the end, however, Arvydas Macijauskas led a resistance movement and Gasol was left in tears after his singular mission was thwarted. An impressionable young kid danced in celebration.
"We won the championship," Valanciunas said, smiling. "It was amazing."
On Sunday, Lithuanians will gather around their televisions and a nation will hold its collective breath. This time, it will be Valanciunas who will be one of the 12 men shouldering a small nation's hopes, knowing that their names will never be forgotten if they secure victory over France in the 2013 EuroBasket final (ESPNews, WatchESPN, 2:50 p.m. ET) in Ljubljana.
There is a strong sense, speaking to the current team, that they are the guardians of a tradition, profiting from the rich inheritance bequeathed by past legends like Aryvdas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis and Sarunas Jasikevicius, who were totems for their people both when they were a part of the Soviet Union and then, later, as an independent country.
It is a legacy that goes back to before World War II, to successive European crowns in 1937 and 1939 before the Baltic states were annexed by their giant neighbor to the east. It was then revived and enhanced by the squads that claimed three consecutive Olympic bronze medals from 1992-2000, and the fabled group of a decade ago.
And now this one.
"I don't think we as a team, especially the young guys who are here for the first time, realize yet that we're making history," said guard Martynas Pocius, who played collegiately at Duke. "We're still in the tournament. We're still in that game mode. It's just another game for us. We will all digest it over time, in a week or so when we look back and see we accomplished something. It's great where we are. But I don't think it's sunk in yet."
Only Ksystof Lavrinovic does not need to imagine what it might feel like to stand atop the podium inside the Stozice Arena. The last survivor of the Class of 2003, the 33-year-old forward recalls the sensation of a gold medal being hung around his neck in Stockholm, arms around the shoulders of his brothers as their anthem was sung by 5,000 of their compatriots, some who had boarded ferries, others who had driven the long route round via northern Sweden, just to witness this moment with their own eyes. At the time, it seemed like just one more day at the office.
"Now, 10 years later, I understand how important it is for players and for the people," Lavrinovic said. "For our country, basketball's like a second religion. We gave our best. But we had great guys. We were a great team. We played like demons."
The affection for their efforts, and the spoils, continue even today. "People sometimes try to kiss my hands," he laughs. That is what awaits, he says, if the current crop can make one final leap.
On home soil, two years ago, many felt the European title should be theirs by right. Instead, Lithuania slid out in the quarterfinals, dropping the ball on an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "It was too hard to watch how we lost the chance to compete for the medals," center Jonas Maciulis said. "But you cannot sit down and cry all the time, you have to go out and prove that you can do it."
That has been the mission since they opened training camp in August, ever since head coach Jonas Kazlauskas was persuaded to create a mixture of old and new on his roster and look for immediate returns, rather than rip up the page and focus entirely on the future.
Two losses in the first round, to Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, raised doubts. "We were really searching for our games, winning in the last quarter or last minute," Houston Rockets forward Donatas Motiejunas ,said. But they have been unbeaten since, surviving a high-stakes gambit in their quarterfinal with Italy before crushing Croatia 77-62 in Friday's semifinal.
Their depth has been an asset. The frontcourt, led by Maciulas and Valanciunas, has been dominating. Valanciunas, who has added 15 pounds this offseason, has received personal instruction from Sabonis. The Lithuanian hero has served as an unofficial assistant coach, rebounding balls, offering quiet observations, lending an assured presence. The pair have talked, often daily, the wisdom of the elder passed down.
The Lithuaninans' confidence has grown too. When they faced France in the second round, it was a no-contest. Lithuania accomplished what few others have managed here and threw a blanket over Tony Parker, holding the Spurs star to just 11 points in a 76-62 rout.
It will be an entirely different game in the rematch, Kazlauskas said. To quiet Parker once was a triumph. To do it twice would be a rarity. Everyone will need to contribute, one through 12, he added. Yet several buses and a caravan of cars did not begin a 24-hour journey south on Saturday morning with their passengers expecting silver. "We have every chance to win gold," Valanciunas said. "Everything is in our hands."
They can expect civil honors, statues perhaps, if they deliver, if this group can ascend alongside the hoop greats of Lithuania. Three million left behind will gather around their screens, from Vilnius to Kaunas and into the countryside beyond, and try to will them on to a championship.
Motiejunas said the team knows what this final signifies. "At this moment, all those hearts are bouncing like one ball. That's something amazing," he said. "Now we have a chance to do something that happened 10 years ago and overwrite the history of our country's basketball."
They went into the locker room on Friday, one game left to go. Kazlauskas addressed the room, asking, "Is it enough?"
"We all said no," Motiejunas adds. "We're clear, we're stepping on the court looking for a championship. There is no option for us."
In the mind of an 11-year-old boy, somewhere in Lithuania, it would be a memory that might last a lifetime and beyond.