LONDON -- Not quite three minutes into Lithuania’s game against Team USA last Saturday, center Jonas Valanciunas set up on the low right block and prepared to go to work on American center Tyson Chandler, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. Valanciunas took two dribbles and turned into the lane, scurrying across to set up a hook shot. But he had been moving so quickly and was so eager to get his shot off that he misjudged where he was in the lane. He was too far past the basket, and threw the ball off the front of the rim.
The play sums up where Valanciunas is as a player — eager and talented, but operating without know-how. I brought the play up to coach Kestutis Kemzura, and he nodded.
“There you go, this is the thing with Jonas,” Kemzura told Sporting News. “Sometimes, he wants to come in and do everything right away. In his head, he is working too fast. He is young, that happens. But he needs to slow down.”
This is probably not what Raptors fans were hoping to see from Valanciunas, who will join the team this year, though coach Dwane Casey and general manager Bryan Colangelo have been trying to tamp down expectations. If you’re looking for a reason that Valanciunas, who the Raptors selected with the No. 5 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, played only 8:32 against the U.S., and why he is averaging just 3.6 points in 10.6 minutes in the first five games of the Olympics, Kemzura’s remarks provide it.
At times during last year’s Eurobasket, Valanciunas shined, despite the fact that he was only 19 and playing against well-worn veterans for the national team. This time around, though, Kemzura clearly is pulling back on Valanciunas’ role with the team.
He is the starting center, but mostly because Lithuania is short on options. When the games get rolling, as teams sub in their smaller lineups, Kemzura is all too eager to pull the 20-year-old Valanciunas in favor of veteran forward Darius Songaila.
That was the case on Saturday, when Team USA played Chandler just 8:04, and Kemzura pulled Valanciunas when Chandler was not on the floor. Valanciunas scored just four points, and had two rebounds and two turnovers. Monday against Tunisia, Valanciunas played just 12 minutes, missed both shots he took, had six rebounds and three turnovers.
“Tactically, we got better matchups. For Jonas, it was better to be on the court when USA team played the big center, Chandler,” Kemzura said. “But when they played with a small lineup, with the 4s, not 5s, the more mobile ones, Songaila was better tactically. Plus, Jonas, he is good, but there (are) still many things he has to improve to learn.
“For him it was good to feel where he is going with his game, the NBA. We just tried to see what is best for us, what is working best for us. If it is working, we didn’t want to change.”
Valanciunas has not made much of an impact for Lithuania so far at these Games. This is a far cry from what he did in Eurobasket, when he played 15.7 minutes, averaged 8.4 points and 4.1 rebounds, and had 18 points on 8-for-9 shooting in a stellar game against Serbia.
Part of his problem is that Lithuania has lost some key frontcourt players, including Robertas Javtokas and Donatas Motiejunas, and that has forced Valanciunas into an uncomfortable starting role. Coming off the bench, and without the prospect of beginning his NBA career in less than two months, Valanciunas seemed to put less pressure on himself to produce last year. Now, he is pressing.
Beyond that, Kemzura said, Valanciunas still needs a lot of work.
“It is like with most big men who have no experience,” Kemzura said. “First he must get bigger and stronger. He must be able to hold his position and he needs strength for this. Second, he needs better post moves. He is still learning basics. He will play with his back to the basket when he is older. But now, he must learn. He needs to learn these things, and he will, but he will need time. He has a lot of work to do.”