With the fifth pick of the 2011 NBA draft, the Toronto Raptors select 19-year-old Jonas Valanciunas (pronounced vah-lahn-CHEW-nahs) from Lithuania. The Raptors had finally drafted the athletic rim protecting center Raptors President and General Manager Bryan Colangelo had been searching for.
"He is definitely the best big man in the draft, and in his age group, the best big man in the world," said Raptors Vice President and Assistant General Manager Maurizio Gherardini.
"He is 6' 11.75" tall with no shoes, you could almost list him as 7' 1" (in shoes), so he has Tyson Chandler size. He has a good body that he is filling in. His feet are good feet. He can jump, he can run well, he is an athlete. He turned 19 on May 6 and he is a guy who has been playing a couple of years in the Euroleague."
"The decision was made according to our roster," explained new head coach Dwane Casey. "We have umpteen million guards and we were looking at the young men Walker, Knight, and Leonard, but we had a lot of players at their position. What we don't have is rim protection, length, and athleticism in the middle. Amir is a good player but he doesn't have the length of this player.
"I watched a lot of tape and gave my opinion. I like the young man. He blocks shots, rolls the lane, can catch the ball. I just came from Tyson Chandler and Tyson Chandler at the same age was not as good as this young man."
Valanciunas has spent the past two seasons playing in the Lithuanian and the Baltic leagues and last season he also played in the United VTB and Euroleague putting up impressive numbers for a teenager. Unfortunately for the Raptors, Valanciunas has three years remaining on his deal with his home club and his recently completed buyout will not permit him to leave until the start of the 2012-13 season.
Valanciunas will be a big part of the Raptors future, just not next season.
The Raptors Next Steps
Every year, Colangelo has made it clear that he believes he owes it to the fans to try and put a playoff contending team on the court. It wasn't until injuries decimated last year's roster that he was willing to just go with the young guys and let the chips fall where they may. There is no reason to suspect that Colangelo will not try to field the best team he can next season, whenever next season finally gets around to starting.
"We still have that hole in the middle that we have talked about being the center," said Colangelo. "Either through free agency or trade this is something that we look to address. We don't want to put too much pressure on a young player too early, so even if Jonas came over right away, you are not looking at a scenario where you would just throw him in. Obviously we want him to gain experience and that's important, but we want to let it happen kind of naturally. So our number one goal in trades and free agency this off season is to address the need of a big man, and maybe it's a bridge to the future.
"Anybody we selected with the fifth pick was not likely to come in and be an immediate contributor. There might have been one or two players on the board who could have given us a little spark, but no one was going to take us from where we are as a young team to that plateau where we want to be which is a championship contending team."
Toronto believes they will still have some salary cap room under the future collective bargaining agreement that they will be able use to acquire free agents or to facilitate trades and is basing their plans for this off season's work on that premise.
"The good thing about our situation is we do have flexibility in our budget," said Casey. "We have some excellent free agents out there that I can't talk about now that we are planning to target. We talked about that and there is a plan in place for that center position.
"This was done with that in mind because we do have needs for this coming year and we do plan to address those in free agency. If you look at the long list of free agents that we will be recruiting our behinds off and working to get and that's going to fill that need."
The Raptors have three power forwards returning next season in Andrea Bargnani, Amir Johnson, and Ed Davis. All three of these players can continue to make a substantial contribution to any success the Raptors have next season. However, if the Raptors acquire a starting quality center, one of these power forwards could be traded.
"I know we have some things that we are looking at with respect to some trade discussions to maybe make some changes to this roster that would bring in something else," confirmed Colangelo.
Colangelo likes the young talent he has acquired and he doesn't like to disrupt his team's chemistry with trade speculation. Beyond acquiring an athletic rim protecting center or someone to fill that role until Valanciunas is ready to take over, Colangelo has not identified any other needs on his club or any player he might be willing to trade.
The fact Colangelo took a center who will not be available for a year instead of a more NBA ready college player could be taken as a vote of confidence in Jerryd Bayless and James Johnson
"I think so, in a way you could draw that conclusion," said Colangelo. "I think James is excited that I didn't draft a small forward and Jerryd might have been excited that I didn't draft a guard, but the point being that these guys are here (today). They were excited to be at that (draft) party last night and be part of the activity mingling with the fans. They like Toronto, they like the city, they like playing for this organization and we are adding a piece here (Valanciunas) that is going to help them be better basketball players down the road."
Toronto does have enough talent and depth at the guard and wing positions for a young developing team to head into next season without making major changes.
The 22-year-old Jerryd Bayless started 14 games for the Raptors last season and averaged 18.1 points, 6.7 assists and has likely earned himself a shot as the starter when next season gets underway. The team's veteran Jose Calderon averaged nearly 10 points and 10 assist in his 55 starts, but he has been particularly effective coming off the bench in the past and hasn't always shown Bayless' ability and willingness to play defense.
Baring injuries, the Raptors may not require any help at the point next season. Look for Bayless to start and Calderon to come off the bench and mentor him. The two point guard lineup we saw in Dallas last year could become a regular feature in Toronto.
The Raptors are set at the two guard spot with the 21-year-old DeMar DeRozan who is quickly becoming one of the faces of the franchise. DeRozan had a break out year in his sophomore season averaging 17.2 points in 34.8 minutes per game. A lot more is expected from the hard working DeRozan next season.
The deadline is fast approaching for Leandro Barbosa to decide on his player option for next season and for Colangelo to extend a qualifying offer to the very popular Sonny Weems. Either player could back up DeRozan next season. (Update: Barbosa has exercised his player option for next season.)
Last year's free agent Linas Kleiza hurt his knee in training camp but didn't realize the seriousness of his injury until midway through the season. He is not expected be done rehab before January, however the 26-year-old has three years left on his contract and will be back in a Raptors uniform if at all possible next season. Kleiza was expected to be a big part of the Raptors rotation when he was acquired.
The Raptors acquired 24-year-old James Johnson from the Bulls at the trade deadline to fill that big hole at small forward and he started 25 games for Toronto last season.
"I feel more confident now that I know I am going to come into the season playing minutes," said Johnson. "That is big for me and that alone gives me the drive everyday to go as hard as I can to condition, to lift, to shoot jumpers. That alone just makes me want to push to be the best I can.
"I see that this management loves my game, they know me as a person, and they want me here, so I am going to work as hard as I can for them."
Johnson averaged 9.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.1 blocks, and 1.0 steals for Toronto doing a little bit of everything on the floor.
"You see James Johnson come in and he already had morphed from the time he got here into a player in much better shape and condition with us," said Colangelo. "Now he has lost another 15 pounds. He is in fighting shape if you will. He looks like he is more eager than ever and he is very committed to the process."
The Raptors are giving Johnson his shot at starting small forward when the season starts.
The Raptors have already made the change that should have the biggest impact on the franchise next season. They hired Dallas assistant coach Dwane Casey to be the team's new head coach just days before the draft.
Casey brings a NBA Championship and a defensive focus to the league's worst defensive team, but he brings much more than that to a team in search of an identity.
"I don't want to force leadership," said Colangelo. "But short of a true leader right now in that locker room, the leader is Dwane Casey. He is prepared to take on that role until someone emerges and I like what I have seen so far just in the interaction with him and our staff. Even just his quick discussions with the players, the way he has taken an interest in each of them, wants to spend some time with them, communicate some ideas and thoughts so when we do attend training camp they hit the ground running."
In virtually no time at all, the Raptors have become Casey's team, but Casey may have had an inside track that most of us were not aware of.
"I know (Casey)," said DeRozan. "I work with him a lot every summer out there in Vegas. He has showed me a lot and now that I am playing for him it should definitely be good."
What's next for Toronto?
It feels like Coach Casey is setting the overall direction for the Toronto Raptors and for those who had become weary of watching inconsistent and sometimes inept efforts at the defensive end of the floor, the change to Casey's team can't happen fast enough.
"We have made a coaching change," said Colangelo. "There has been a defensive philosophy instilled almost immediately in terms of everything we are talking about from preparation to personnel to just the practice we are going to be in of creating a different style for aggression and those are things that are all encouraging.
"We have young players that are committed to the development process. They are getting better. They had a great growth season last year. This is just taking the next step."
Except for the focus on obtaining a center once free agency opens up, it does not look like there will be many more significant player changes in the immediate future. Where the Raptors go from here will be wherever Coach Casey tells them to go and they go as far as the young talent that Colangelo has put together can take them.
Read more NBA news and insight: http://www.hoopsworld.com/Story.asp?...#ixzz1QL7eosvO