Q&A with @LithuaniaBasket about Jonas Valanciunas

Five questions on Jonas Valanciunas’ performance thus far in FIBA World Cup 2014.

Editor’s Note: Simonas Baranauskas (@LithuaniaBasket) is an expert on all things related to Lithuanian basketball. Raptors Republic reached out to Simonas for his insight on Valanciunas’ performance thus far in the FIBA World Cup.

1. Grade Jonas Valanciunas’ performance through three games thus far. What has stood out in terms of where he’s improved or regressed?

It would be really easy to forget how good Jonas was in the first two games after an absolute no-show in the last game against Australia, but I’ll start with the good.

The first two games went really smoothly for Jonas. He dominated the paint offensively against inferior opposition with incredible efficiency. Comparing to previous summers, teammates weren’t afraid to feed him the ball in the post and he delivered, making 12-of-15 shots in the first two games. Although the games weren’t necessarily all that easy for Lithuania, Jonas looked confident and in control.

In the last game against Australia, it all turned upside down — partly due to the swarming Aussie defense, partly due to some carelessness on Jonas’ part. He couldn’t cope with Aron Baynes’ physicality on the defensive end either, leading to him being benched in favor of experienced big man Darjus Lavrinovic, who managed to turn the tables around and played a crucial role in Lithuania’s comeback in the second half. Jonas had a very hard time establishing any presence on either end of the court and was basically a non-factor.

2. How is Jonas Kazlauskas (Lithuania’s head coach) using Valanciunas in the offense? Defense?

Valanciunas has been an important figure in coach Kazlauskas’ game plan. When Jonas made his debut in the national team in 2011, he was mostly a pick-and-roll threat, now Kazlauskas is utilizing him as a post-up option quite a lot.

Other players aren’t hesitating to feed him the ball, though the lead-up to those post-looks is pretty basic – usually just a simple back-screen in the paint trying to get a switch, which would result in a mismatch. Obviously, he’s still running a fair share of pick-and-rolls and setting screens on offense, the lack of a good playmaker on the team limits the efficiency in pick-and-roll situations.

Valanciunas still has some work to do to improve defensively and was caught over-helping his guards on pick-and-roll situation. In the first two games he asserted himself as a solid post defender, but he wasn’t playing against very strong opposition, though he did shut down Mexico’s Gustavo Ayon for most of the game.

3. Australia pulled off an upset over Lithuania on Tuesday afternoon. Valanciunas wasn’t particularly effective, scoring zero points, committing two fouls and two turnovers in the first half before finishing with four points overall. Why did he struggle?

Lithuania as a team didn’t play well and it would be unfair to single out the poor game by Jonas. Nothing was going for the Lithuanians, as the guards struggled to avoid turnovers, often struggling to get past half court against a zone-press by Australia.

Jonas’ direct match-up Aron Baynes started the game really actively and went at Jonas hard from the get-go. Jonas picked up an early foul in the very first possession of the game, which resulted in him trying to avoid a second foul. He was subbed out quite early in the game.

It has to be said, that that the entry passes into the post were poor and it’s hard to blame Jonas for some of those turnovers that were counted against him. Every single time Lithuania tried to get the ball inside to Jonas, he’d be swarmed by two or three Australian players.

4. Is the schedule wearing on Valanciunas? He did play three games over three four days.

I don’t think it’d be fair to say the schedule already had its toll, since they had a day off before today’s game against Australia. They’ve played three games in four days, which isn’t all that bad, considering Jonas did have a fair bit of rest in the first two games, playing an average of 25 minutes per game. The schedule might be an issue further down the road in the tournament.

5. What are Lithuania’s chances of finishing with a medal in this event?

Before the injury of starting point guard Mantas Kalnietis, I was pretty confident this team would be good enough for a bronze medal. But losing the captain and possibly the most important player on the team just a couple of days before the start of the tournament is a game-changer. Lithuania’s side of the bracket is relatively easy, with USA, Lithuania, Australia and Slovenia as the best four teams on paper.

In order to avoid USA until the semifinal (providing Lithuania gets there), the team needs to finish first or third in Group D, which looks like a realistic scenario. As long as we manage to stay out of USA’s way for as long as possible, which is the semifinal, I think we still have an outside-shot at a bronze medal or at least a chance to play for one in the third place game.

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