Talent, Passion and Toughness Aren’t Defined by Geography

Nothing could be further from my typical Statophile post than this one. I was more than a little frustrated by many in the Raptors fan base. The initial negative reaction to the pick of Jonas Valanciunas was based on less than stellar knowledge of the player.

Those who disliked the pick often cited one or more of three main reasons:

  • He’s Bargnani 2.0 / He’s another “soft Euro”
  • We needed a PG / We needed help now
  • NCAA players are more reliable (less bust potential)

Argument #1: “He’s Bargnani 2.0” / “He’s another ‘soft Euro'”

I have absolutely no idea where this is coming from. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What have respected observers (who have seen his play in person) said about Mr. Valanciunas?

From NBAdraft.net

  • “Uses all of his physical skills to the fullest when attacking the glass”
  • “Shows a good understanding of boxing out, which is somewhat rare for young players”
  • “Solid shot blocker with the potential to be very good in this area”
  • Tough player that’s not afraid of contact”
  • “Unlike a lot of bigmen that were pushed into the game of basketball, it’s obvious he has a genuine love for the game
  • “Has a lot of enthusiasm for the game, and eager to improve.”

From DraftExpress.com

  • “His terrific effort level and hands made him a terrific pick and roll finisher”
  • “He was asked to play hard and spend a considerable amount of time setting screens out on the perimeter”
  • “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”
  • “Has no qualms whatsoever about throwing his body around in the paint”
  • “He’s not afraid to challenge opponents, even if that means taking a nasty spill to the floor and tasting the hardwood.”
  • “Valanciunas is a major presence in the paint”
  • “Players with his combination of size, length, mobility, toughness and budding skills are extremely difficult to come by.”

From ShamSports

  • “Smooth, polished, controlled, never rushed, and highly poised, with good touch around the basket and a very nice free throw stroke”
  • “If there’s something he can’t do, he learns it incredibly quickly”
  • “It doesn’t matter if you have to wait an extra year. It’s worth it”

From Mavericks (psst, current NBA Champions) GM Donnie Nelson on the Fan590:

  • “I would have done the same thing”
  • “You guys got one of the real diamonds”
  • “You’re going to love Jonas… he has a heart as big as all outdoors

I’ve added the bold emphasis. Read all the bold parts and now tell me they describe Bargnani. Or a soft player.

Argument #2: “We needed a PG” / “We needed help now”

I understand this view. However, a couple things on the PG argument:

  • We are one of only a few teams with TWO points guards in the top 40 PER ratings: Calderon at 20th, Bayless at 36th. Raptors fans like to consistently bash our point guards.
  • You can win without an all-star PGs. LA’s Fisher (60th in PER ratings) / Blake (61st) tandem is a prime example.
  • The Raptors would have $15.7 million wrapped up in 3 point guards, or 34.9% of its committed salary (although this is not a large problem as Calderon or Bayless *potentially* could be moved and Bayless’ deal ends after next season).

I’ve lumped the “we needed help now” argument in here. Why? My view is similar to John Krolik’s, [From our TrueHoop colleagues at Cavs: The Blog] who wrote this before the draft:

Here’s my justification: Do I think that Valanciunas will be a better player in the 2012-13 season than Kanter or any other non-point guard player who will be available at the #4 spot? I do. Do I believe the Cavs are ready to make a serious playoff run in 2011-12? I do not. Given those two conclusions, I think it makes sense to take the best player, wait the year, and not settle on a lesser player because of impatience.

Top-5 picks do not come often. And if the Cavs end up being horrible again and getting another high-lottery pick next season instead of flirting with the 7th or 8th slot, I think that would ultimately be for the best…

Bang on. Find and replace “Cavs” with “Raptors”. Do you want perpetual mediocre seasons? Sure, plug near term needs now. Do you really want to go deep in the playoffs and try to win it all? If so, that requires a multi-year rebuild, unless your Boston, LA and now Miami. Reality is, you need to approach winning like OKC since Toronto is not in the top few FA destinations category like Boston, LA, NY or Miami. This means multiple years of high picks. I know its tough to take another losing season, but isn’t a high pick in a great draft (2012) not worth it?

Besides which, many of you also have the view (and are probably right) that we will not have a NBA season start before the new year. So why the rush this year?

I have always viewed the building process much like Kevin Pritchard, the former Portland GM: “The challenge is to assemble a team and try to get everyone when they’re peaking.” (from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference). This means looking a few years out, not plugging short term needs. Thus, the Raptors have a couple years to get a PG – and it could be by building a young talent core of wings and bigs and acquiring that final PG piece via free agency. Or perhaps obtaining one in next year’s draft. But since we’re not going to win it all next year, why the rush?! Do it right.

I agree with Mark Cuban: “the worst position in the league is a 40 win team”

Argument #3: “NCAA players are more reliable (less bust potential)”

Yes, the statement may be somewhat valid. It could be argued there is often more predictability with NCAA players. But don’t select Darko and Andrea as your sole examples of why international statistics do not translate well. My response? How did Adam Morrison’s, Ed O’Bannon’s, Kwame Brown’s (American High School), Stromile Swift’s, Luke Jackson’s, Robert Traylor’s etc NCAA performances translate to the NBA?! Cherry picking a few examples is easy. How did international players Tony Parker’s, Manu Ginobili’s, Dirk Nowitzki’s, Nene’s, Mickaël Piétrus’, Pau Gasol’s translate? There are plenty of examples on both sides of the argument. While some international leagues *may* not have the equivalent competition as the NCAA, it works both ways. Perhaps you’re double teamed more since your also playing with less talent. Perhaps, in the NCAA, you rack up several assists since you’re playing with elite players who finish better. Perhaps, as a big at a NCAA school, you foul less as your wings and guards do a better job of keeping defenders in front of them. It’s often difficult to make simple correlations.

Could Jonas Valanciunas be a bust? Maybe. Could he be the steal of the draft? Maybe. Is Brandon Knight a guaranteed NBA all-star? No. Could he become one? Maybe. Its difficult to predict how 19 or 20 year olds will mature. But to argue he going to be a bust because of where he was born?! Non-starter.

Talent, passion and toughness are not defined by geographic boundaries. Judge players by not by what’s on their passport, but what they do on the floor.

“So it’s lazy people you don’t like?” – Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking

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