Although most of Lithuania will be long asleep, many of the country’s die-hard basketball fans will bear the consequences of not enough sleep on the night of the NBA Draft. It will be 02:00 in the morning in the small Baltic state when the draft tips-off and no TV station will be broadcasting the event, but it will still draw a huge following almost 7000 kilometers away from the Prudential Center in Newark, where the draft will be held.
A large number of devoted Lithuanian basketball fans will be glued to their computers following what could be the best pair of Lithuanian players – Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas – going in the same year’s draft for a long while. The fact of the matter is that the Lithuanian impact on the NBA has bubbled out during the past years with Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ best years long past, Linas Kleiza not fulfilling fan expectations in Toronto and Darius Songaila – yes, he still was in the league last season – had a smaller role for Philadelphia 76ers than the team’s janitor. The two talented youngsters have the chance to make the league important back home in Lithuania again.
What is indeed amazing is that two players from a small nation with a population of just over three million could very well be looking at having both of the players drafted in the lottery. There are no questions about Jonas Valanciunas, but Donatas Motiejunas’ stock has been on the slide, once again, when it matters the most. The crafty Lithuanian decided to pull out of the draft last year feeling that the chances of being selected higher were better this year. However, it wasn’t the case, as Motiejunas wasn’t even among the 14 players invited to the Draft Green Room and will have to watch the draft as a regular spectator in Chicago, where his agent Herb Rudoy is based.
With a successful season in Euroleague under his belt, Valanciunas took away Motiejunas’ title as Lithuania’s next-big-thing and didn’t look back. What has been a huge mistake by many people, who haven’t actually seen both players in person, is the fact that they tended to look at them as players from the same mold. The last statement couldn’t be more wrong, as you literally couldn’t find two more contrasting big men in the entire draft.
There probably isn’t a craftier big man than Motiejunas – or as Italians call him, Moti – in this draft. Watching the lanky power forward on offense is a treat – a guy that big with such good ball-handling, court-vision and passing skills is very rare. In the eyes of many Americans, Motiejunas would define a stereotypical European big man, who is soft, doesn’t like to play defense and relies on his outside game much more than actually playing in the post.
The most worrying thing for Motiejunas, was the mindset and work ethic problems, even lack of desire and passion for the game of basketball, which was pointed out by many experts both in Lithuania and Italy, where he has spent the two last years. From early age, the power forward was abundantly superior to his opposition and relied on talent opposed to hard work to achieve goals. In fact, you couldn’t blame him much, as everything indeed seemed to be going very well until, of course, he met bigger and stronger guys after the move to the Benetton Treviso in the Italian Serie A. You could put all of these Motiejunas’ flaws and transfer them letter-by-letter to the column with Valanciunas’ advantages. They are that different.
Picking up Valanciunas in the draft wouldn’t hurt any team. And not only because he’s hard-working effort guy, but also because the 19-year-old –as his game is now – doesn’t require many touches to be efficient. As bad, as his screens are now – they will definitely improve when his frame fills out – he sets them willingly and his quickness is enough to make Jonas a successful pick-n-roll player. Rebounding has always been one of the stronger parts of Valanciunas’ game and leading the Euroleague in Total Rebounding Percentage at 22.7%, which is comparable to Kevin Love’s 23.4% in the NBA, should end any doubts there. Most of Valanciunas’ points will come after second-chance opportunities or pick-n-rolls, but something he has been working with his coaches in Vilnius was his back-to-the-basket game, which still needs lots and lots of polishing.
The biggest worry for Valanciunas comes off the court and doesn’t actually depend on the player himself. It’s Valanciunas’ buyout – or lack of it – that has been causing headaches for NBA teams and the players’ agent, who has been trying to negotiate the terms of a buyout with his current team Lietuvos Rytas. From the looks of it, it’s not likely that the actual buyout would be less than $3,000,000 and therefore the majority of it would have to be paid by Valanciunas himself. According to the big man, it’s not something that would stop him from moving to the US already next year if the team that drafted the center would want to see him in the other side of the pond.
Valanciunas is two years younger than Motiejunas and is at the same position where Donatas was two years ago – at the age of 18, they both played in the Lithuanian league. For Motiejunas it was the first season in the country’s top flight, but the left-handed big man already led a lowly Aisciai Kaunas side with 19.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.4 assists in an average playing time of 29.7 minutes, collecting an average ranking of 22.1. At that stage, Motiejunas shot an amazing 44.4% from the three-point line and hit free-throws at a very decent 75.5% accuracy. The only visible drawback was his turnovers – 2.5 per game, which is quite understandable for an 18-year-old, who has been given a very important role in the team’s game.
At the same age, Jonas Valanciunas already made his debut in the Euroleague and it was already his second season in the Lithuanian league. The main difference when comparing to Motiejunas is the overall team strength – Motiejunas played in a team with very little talent around him, while Valanciunas represented a much stronger team, which was defending the league’s title and was also playing in the Euroleague as well. Still, on a very strong roster, Valanciunas managed to collect 11.5 points and 7.3 boards per game also adding an of 1.8 blocks in 20.6 minutes – almost ten less than Motiejunas – per game averaging a 16.6 index rating. For a big man relying solely on his inside action – 66.8% FG – to collect points a 78.1% accuracy from the stripe was astonishing. The numbers don’t tell the full story as the difference in team strength is indescribable, but, even that aside, Valanciunas’ per minute index rating (.805) was a bit higher than Motiejunas’ (.744), who was playing for a much weaker team.
Although Valanciunas does indeed look like a brighter prospect, at times, it seems that Motiejunas gets too hard of a beating, but it is what it is. Both of the players will get a chance to prove their worth in the NBA and, perhaps, bring the tradition of Lithuanian basketball in the strongest basketball league back to life and spark an interest in the hearts of many basketball-crazy fans back home in Lithuania, who had been starting to forget what NBA means to the rest of the world.