Experts on Jonas Valanciunas

You know what? Jonas Valanciunas is kind of amazing – 26 points and 11 rebounds in his first game representing Lithuania internationally at senior level. Below are a couple comments from some Lithuanian basketball experts.

Steponas Kairys (basketball agent): “He’s a player of a special talent, but there are some worrying things. First of all, I don’t understand why coaches that are working with him haven’t taught Jonas to use his body in the post. He does everything else very well, but just doesn’t have the know-how of using his body to fight for position in the paint – both offensively and defensively. I can’t get my head round why a player of such talent hasn’t been taught this.”

Sergejus Jovaisa (ex-player, coach): “Let’s just wish he keeps playing like this. He has played a single good game so far and not against the best opponent. That doesn’t take anything away from Valanciunas’ performance. I think Valanciunas should make the final roster [for EuroBasket]. If he wouldn’t, the whole Lithuania would rebel against [coach] Kemzura. Wherever one looks, Valanciunas looks great. He should find a spot in this team.”

Experts on Jonas Valanciunas

The final pre-draft breakdown: Valanciunas and Motiejunas

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.

The final pre-draft breakdown: Valanciunas and Motiejunas

Valančiūnas doing alright in Euroleague

Jonas Valančiūnas has been impressive in the start of Euroleague. The 18-year-old reached double-digits in both games – on the road in Istanbul against Fenerbahçe Ülker and versus Montepaschi at home in Vilnius. If you were to look only at the statistic averages – they look nothing short of impressive – 10.5 points on 80 percent shooting and 8 rebounds. All of this in very limited playing time of just over 17 minutes a night.

However, there’s a reason (or rather two different ones – one for each game) why Valančiūnas isn’t spending more time on the court. The young center started his first Euroleague game against Fenerbahçe off the bench, but racked up a lot of fouls against the physically tougher opponents such as Gašper Vidmar and Oğuz Savaş, fouling out in 16:47 minutes.

The second game in Vilnius was a different case – fouls weren’t the biggest problem. In fact, Valančiūnas came in with the starting unit. And what a start it was… Well, at least offensively. Defense against Milovan Raković was another case. As much as Valančiūnas did offensively, was balanced out by him not being able to defend the big Serb. All of this can be clearly seen in a video made by in-the-game.org – a one of a kind website in European hoops. One of my favorite, I have to say.

As a side-note here, you can also check out the advanced statistics from both games, where Valančiūnas can be seen as one of the best performers in this Lietuvos Rytas team, which is currently 0-2 in Euroleague.

Fenerbahçe Ülker 86-69 Lietuvos Rytas. Valančiūnas 10 points, 10 rebounds.

Lietuvos Rytas 75-79 Montepaschi. Valančiūnas 11 points, 6 rebounds.

Also, I want you to check out a nice piece about Valančiūnas’ start in Euroleague by EuropeanProspects.com. Have a nice read. All for now.

Valančiūnas doing alright in Euroleague

Top players of the U18 European Championship group stage

I’ve written a small piece about the best performers of the U18 European Championship, which is under way here in Vilnius. Having sat in the arenas for most of the last three days, I’ve compiled a list of players that I most liked. Enjoy! This piece is taken from LithuaniaBasketball.com, where I also write regularly.

The first three days of the U18 European Championship in Vilnius have flown by in an instant and so has the first group stage. Vilnius has organized a nice tournament so far and the arenas are starting to fill-up day by day, which is nice news after a slow start in this aspect.

There have been many nice performances in the tournament we are presenting you the ten players that have left the biggest mark in the tournament so far. The best performers are organized into the first and second teams by positions.

FIRST TEAM
 

GUARD | Roko ROGIC – Croatia

In a tournament that hasn’t got many top-class point guards, Roko Rogic hasn’t provided a glimmer of hope in this aspect either, but that’s not why he was selected into the Croatian roster anyway – the sharpshooter is averaging 15,1 points per game and is currently hitting 61,1% from beyond the arch, good enough for third best in the whole tournament. After a slow start against Serbia, where Rogic scored only 7 points and couldn’t help his team escape defeat, the guard found his rhythm and was firing all cylinders in the next two. He ended the next two games, against Germany and Greece, with a 5-7 mark from downtown and helped Croatia seal the second place in Group D.

GUARD-FORWARD | Alessandro GENTILE – Italy

Alessandro Gentile could easily be called the MVP of the tournament from what we’ve seen so far – not only does he rank first in scoring with a staggering 31.3 points per game, but is doing it with amazing efficiency nailing 63.3% of his shots from the field. And that’s only the beginning – all of the scoring comes with an additional 5.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. If you were to choose a player, who stood out from the crowd in the tournament – it’s got to be Gentile, he’s just above the rest and does everything on the court with astonishing ease. There is one flaw in his game and that’s turning the ball over as he’s committing 4.7 turnovers a game, but one thing has to be said though – he’s not surrounded by good players and the whole team of Italy relies on him to bring victories. Italy finished first in Group C despite losing the last game to Russia, where Alessandro Gentile scored 42 points, grabbed 7 boards and dished out 7 dimes.

GUARD-FORWARD | Patrick HECKMANN – Germany

Many expected Germany to do well in this tournament with Philipp Neumann as their key player. Things didn’t go entirely according to plan – Germany finished last in Group D and Neumann was outshined by his fellow teammate Patrick Heckmann, who’s the tournament’s second leading scorer with 18 points per game. Heckmann’s name came out of the blue as he had never been seen as one of Europe’s elite prospects, but the last group game against Serbia must have left everyone watching very impressed – the German scored 27 points on 12-of-15 shooting from two-point land. His great finishing near the basket saw the German move up to third place in two-point field goal percentage with 65.5% shots finding the bucket. To say the least, Patrick Heckmann was one of the most pleasant surprises in the whole tournament.

FORWARD |Edmunds DUKULIS – Latvia

Latvia has surprisingly finished the first stage atop Group B and is only one of two teams, together with Lithuania, to have maintained a clean record and won all three games. The Latvians confirmed their intentions by pulling of an upset against the favorite Spain in the last group game and forward Edmunds Dukulis has played a major role in the team’s good performance so far. Dukulis was third in the scoring list with 17.3 points with an additional 8.3 rebounds per game. The player has remained a question mark to opponent defenses and has had a consistent tournament so far scoring 22 points against Sweden, 13 versus France and adding a double-double of 17 points and 10 rebounds in the final game against Spain.

CENTER | Jonas VALANCIUNAS – Lithuania

With the absence of Turkish monster Enes Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas hasn’t found a worthy opponent in this tournament so far and there aren’t many chances that he will. Valanciunas dominated on the court as Lithuania blew past everything opposition had to offer to win all three games by more than twenty points. The center is fourth in scoring in the whole tournament with 16.7 points, second in rebounding numbers – 12.0 boards per game and also fourth in blocks with 2.0 on average. Valanciunas’ game has been eye-candy for fans as the Lithuanian was just better in every sense of the word. In a game against Polish big man Przemyslaw Karnowski, his toughest challenger so far, Valanciunas finished the game with a massive double-double of 16 points and 18 rebounds. Looking at the long-term perspective, it looks like only the Lithuanian center will be able to give Alessandro Gentile a fight for the MVP honors – and at the moment, Valanciunas has been playing about ten minutes less on an average and his statistics can only grow from here if needed.

SECOND TEAM

GUARD | Safak EDGE – Turkey

The Turkish guard scored 2 and 3 points in his last two games, but his name still deserves a mention. Safak Edge was by far the most impressive player of day one – scoring 35 points in late comeback win against Russia in two overtimes. The player scored 9-of-17 three-pointers that brought his team back into the game and, in the end, helped Turkey prevail. However, it was all pretty quite in the Turkish camp after an opening night storm, which was created by no other than Safak Edge is still averaging 13.3 points and 2.7 assists despite a poor showing in the last two games.

GUARD | Dmitry KULAGIN – Russia 

Statistics don’t tell the full story in the story about the Russian talent Dmitry Kulagin, though, they haven’t really been bad either – 9.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists, which is the second result in the whole tournament. The player can play positions from point guard to small forward and has been really nice to watch, especially in the first game against Turkey, where his creative skills and instinctive feel for the game shone through the best – 15 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists tapped his performance that day.

GUARD-FORWARD | Deividas PUKIS – Lithuania

Deividas Pukis, who is playing basketball across the Atlantic, was as big of a surprise as any in this tournament. The player has been a sixth-man in the deep roster that Lithuania has got but is second in the team and eight in the tournament when it comes scoring with 15.0 points per game. All of this comes with great three-point percentage (45.0%) and solid numbers across the stat sheet – 5.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 2.0 steals per game in a mere 22.7 minutes.

FORWARD | Linos CHRYSIKOPOULOS – Greece

Point difference left Greece in the third position of Group D, but the team still got to wins and that’s mostly because of the Greek go-to man Linos Chrysikopoulos surname was not only a tough challenge to the announcers’  tongue but also to the opponent coaches, who couldn’t figure out how to stop the forward. Chrysikopoulos averaged 15.0 points and 6.3 rebounds adding 2.3 assists per game as well as being one of the most fouled players with 5.3 free-throw attempts per game and using full advantage of this as the fourth most accurate free-throw shooter – 81.3%.

CENTER | Przemyslaw KARNOWSKI – Poland

The wide-bodied Pole has been one of the younger players of the tournament, but hasn’t failed to impress – Przemyslaw Karnowski used his body well to get his average effort to 13.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocked shots per game. As well as being a defensive anchor to Polish game, Karnowski provided rebounding and nice touch around the rim to help Poland achieve the second place in Group A, where Lithuania dominated the rest.

Top players of the U18 European Championship group stage

Brainstorming the mid-season changes

Let me start this post with a question, a very serious question, might I say Top-16-serious… What would you choose – three wins or four? Mmmh… A question worth a million dollars? Or maybe, rather, a question worth a Euroleague Top 16 place? As unfair as it seems, Žalgiris managed to slip through to the next round of Euroleague and even climb up to the third place in the group with three victories, while Lietuvos Rytas was ‘left on the ice’ after losing the last regular season game to Unicaja Malaga. Screwed it up themselves, no one to blame.

I’m going to write about the new players individually after I get a better look at Žalgiris acquisitions in the VTB League Final 4 in Kaunas tomorrow and the day after.

Both Lithuanian top-guns underwent changes in the club, but there’s a couple differences, that were influenced by how deep the pockets of the owners are. Žalgiris made their signings (Aleksandar Čapin and Mario Delaš) before they qualified, Lietuvos Rytas, however, waited for things to develop. Had they qualified to the Top 16 the team would have strengthened more. I doubt that Valanciunas would be on the team. And Rytas GM Jonas Vainauskas spoke about signing former player Hollis Price (had Rytas made it to the Top 16). In fact, it might prove better for Rytas in the long-term perspective, which you could safely call by the name of Jonas Valanciunas. The player will have time to improve faster (if he gets regular minute and as Kurtinaitis has said this will all depend on the youngster) and get to know, what’s waiting for him next season (in the Euroleague if they win LKL and the Euroleague Qualifications if they lose in the finals).

Another detail is that Žalgiris added players without dropping anyone (if I’m not mistaking, there are 16 players in their roster now), while Lietuvos Rytas got rid of the useless Dejan Borovnjak (but will still probably pay a part of his salary, a I doubt Panionios would be stupid enough to take the full offer) and said good-bye to Lukas Brazdauskis who rotated to the secondary squad. I’m pretty sure Žalgiris will send some of their youngsters to Aisčiai as well (Janavičius, Vasiliauskas, Butkevičius, Juškevičius (?)). Talking about the new Žalgiris player contracts (Delaš – 3,5 years, Čapin – 2,5), there’s not much chance that they’ll stay in the club for the whole time. The new Žalgiris owner is looking how to make business out of basketball, just as he has been doing from football for a while now. And business in basketball is behind the mechanics of buying and selling players. I don’t know the details of Delaš’ contract, but I’d imagine that there’s a nasty buy-out fee. Or nothing of that kind at all. If that’s the case, this will let Žalgiris hold all the cards whilst negotiating with richer clubs, as they can put the limbo stick on the price anywhere they want. 

Generally speaking, both teams are looking to the future. Bojan Popovič was sold just because his contract was going to end at the end of this season and Lietuvos Rytas wanted to make some money before letting go of him (which would have happened anyway in the summer). I’m pretty sure that the club from Vilnius is looking for a young point guard, who they could have for another season and if possible the after that. If we look at what Rytas is looking at for the playmaker role (Hollis Price, Igor Miloševič and maybe Bobby Dixon), Miloševič is the one that has a bright future. The only doubts can be in his statistics as he hasn’t been doing a lot in small (Rytas-sized if not smaller) club of Marrousi. Kenan Bajramovic is another steal for Rytas, he has proved to be a good player the last time round in Vilnius and with his price down due to not playing this was a timely acquisition.

Brainstorming the mid-season changes

A beast unleashed

A beast was unleashed yesterday in the French city of Metz. Don’t be mistaking – Jonas Valančiūnas was impressive throughout the whole U18 European Championships, but his performance against the hosts was something truly amazing and somewhat out of this planet. NBA scouts, take note – this guy has a bright future waiting for him. 37 points and 19 rebounds isn’t everyday stuff, now add a dominating defensive effort with 4 blocks and you’ve got all-star material. If he had a decent point guard around, the young talent would see his numbers rocket even more. 

A great talent that he is

The potential of Valančiūnas amazes
The potential of Valančiūnas amazes

Valančiūnas was unstoppable around the rim offensively, just give him the ball and he’ll deliver. It didn’t matter whether the French applied double, triple or even quadruple defense on the youngster – Jonas would either make a nice jump hook, battle his way through and finish above the rim, get fouled or dish the ball to an open teammate. Having improved his free throw percentage greatly, Valančiūnas is even more difficult to contain. If Jonas can improve his range and be able to confidently make a mid-range jumper once in a while that would make him even more dangerous. And even if he doesn’t, the young chap will be a superstar one day. Valančiūnas’ long hands help him a lot both in getting his shot off in the forest of hands and securing the boards. And boy is he an energy guy – you can just sense how he wants to win, the effort put into the game is one of the highest I’ve seen. Great offensive players aren’t always good on defense, Jonas is – his long hands should scare anyone going to the rim. There have always been comparisons between players that are current stars and all time greats – Michael Jordan of Turkey, Baltic Pippen, Baby Shaq… If Valančiūnas can increase his strength, by gaining more muscle without losing too much of his speed and mobility, it would be strange if he wouldn’t be called the Lithuanian Superman with a better free throw percentage and less athleticism. And only to add to that, Dwight is his favourite player.

A future in Vilnius 

Jonas Valančiūnas has a future in Lietuvos Rytas
Jonas Valančiūnas has a future in Lietuvos Rytas

The rising star signed a 5 year contract with Lietuvos Rytas last year and moved to Vilnius to play for the secondary squad Perlas at the age of 16. You’d think that a young lad like him would have trouble playing against physically stronger men than him in NKL. And you’d be wrong – from the first match on he was a double-double machine, averaging  14,6 points and 11,1 rebounds in the regular season, only to see his results drop slightly in the playoffs. Rytas’ manager Jonas Vainauskas has mentioned that the player from a north-eastern Lithuanian city of Utena should join the main roster after this year together with another talented big man Tautvydas Šležas. I wonder if Valančiūnas’ summer performance has changed his mind, but let’s be honest at this point in his career he needs to play as much as possible and sitting on the bench wouldn’t help much. If this guy keeps improving at the current rate, he is likely to become a dominant center in men basketball in no time.

A beast unleashed