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Video: Jonas Valančiūnas

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

The crazy Lithuanian shooter makes NBA TV

Have you heard about the Lithuanian guy, who went 24-of-124 from three-point land? I’m pretty sure you have, so there’s no need to tell you anything more about him. The interesting thing I wanted to share my amazement of how the news spread worldwide to even make the NBA TV (click the link for video).

The report first appeared in local Lithuanian websites, who didn’t really make a big fuss out of things. It was a very interesting and intriguing story, but that’s pretty much it. Anyway, I was told that his might actually be interesting to foreigners and decided to write up a piece about it on LithuaniaBasketball.com.

With the factor of luck included, the news about the crazy Lithuanian shooter hit on the other side of the pond, as websites such as SB Nation and ESPN. All it took was a one-liner from Henry Abbott off of the Truehoop blog at ESPN to draw and the news spread everywhere. The story at LithuaniaBasketball.com got over 20,000 hits from all around with the majority of traffic coming from the States, Spain and… Hong Kong! Crazy stuff, ain’t it?

The crazy Lithuanian shooter makes NBA TV

Early Morning Hiccups – Nov. 6

A new category has joined the ranks here at The Lithuanian Perspective. Early Morning Hiccups will bring you the whispers, scribbles and just stories about Lithuanian hoops scattered around the net. For the sake of being open, I have no idea if this is going to work out with the minimal coverage about Lithuanian basketball throughout different English language media outlets, but I’ll do my best and plan to update this at least weekly, but this doesn’t entirely rely on me. For a worst-case scenario, I’ll try to fill the void with some interesting stuff from European basketball in general.

RaptorsRepublic.com – ‘Gameday: Raptors vs Lakers – Nov. 5/10’

SF – Kleiza vs Artest
Kleiza had some trouble getting off against Kirilenko; Artest is the bigger stronger version. It will be tough taking it to him head on, so it will be best to keep Ron-Ron on his toes and mix it up some. I really have nothing to say other than Artest is more of a perimeter player on offense; he likes to pop long jumpers. Those are easy to defend, just stay up on him and get him to put it on the floor. I don’t know, I got nothing on this match-up, I think Kleiza will score some, grab a couple boards and dish a few dimes, and I think Artest will do the same.

Edge: Even

BallinEurope.com – ‘Vainauskas: Lietuvos Rytas (still) good enough to get into EL Final Four’

Proving once again that, even when no games are being played, there’s never a dull moment in Lithuanian basketball, BallinEurope’s man in Lithuania (whom we know simply as “Y”) reports that a team executive there seems to have a bit of a slippery grasp on hard reality – and it’s not even Vladimir Romanov!

MiamiHerald.com – ‘Miami Heat’s Big Z still has lot left in the tank’

Much like he did during the latter part of his 12-year stay in Cleveland, Heat center Zydrunas Ilgauskas spent 15 minutes after Sunday’s victory over the Nets sitting in front of his locker with his feet inside of a large orange cooler filled with ice and water.

“This is how I keep fresh,” said Ilgauskas, who also had both of his knees wrapped in ice. “I’ve got to take care of myself.”

When he followed former Cavaliers teammate LeBron James to South Beach, the 35-year-old Ilgauskas was searching for his first championship ring. But the ring wasn’t the only reason he came south. The 7-3, 260-pound veteran had other motivations.

“I feel like I have something left in the tank,” Ilgauskas said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could have a fresh start and have it do me some good.”

On Sunday, he took another step toward that fresh start, coming off the bench in the first quarter and providing a spark with 10 points (on 5-of-6 shooting) to go with four rebounds and an assist in 18 minutes of action.

BallinEurope.com ­– ‘Oregonians, did you vote Sabonis?’

While Election Day went on throughout America, the city of Portland was treated to a nice shadow campaign, propagated by individual(s) unknown. Riffing on former Trail Blazer Chris Dudley’s campaign for governor of Oregon, some basketball aficionados in the state crafted a bit of a samizdat poster for Lithuanian citizen Arvydas Sabonis to rule govern the state on whose basketball courts he once roamed.

EuroleagueAdventures.com ­– ‘ELATV: Pocius protects his house, sends Prokom packing’

Freaknick breaks down a Wednesday on which CSKA, Asseco and Spirou need answers fast, Caja goes down and Zalgiris beats Asseco Prokom in OT.

SlamOnline.com ­– ‘Euroleague Preview, Week 3’ 

Two match-ups between undefeated clubs highlight the Euroleague’s third week of play. In the first, Fenerbahçe Ülker does their best to oust the 2010 champs in Palau Blaugrana. The second pits the unlikeliest of the 2-0ers, Union Olimpija, against the 2009 champs, Panathinaikos. Those and 10 more to come, but first it’s time for me to apologize to a forgotten prospect…

BallinEurope.com – ‘Official BallinEurope Euroleague Power Rankings: Week Three’

As we head into week three of EL play, things haven’t quite normalized to preseason expectations, but BallinEurope’s Official Euroleague Power Rankings are looking a tad more normal. Well, except CSKA Moscow’s placement, that is. Rankings are based on current Euroleague record, plus play in other leagues and intangibles (like, for instance, this writer’s preconceived notions).

Early Morning Hiccups – Nov. 6

Mindaugas Kuzminskas 1989 F 204/6’9″ Siauliai

Mindaugas Kuzminskas has become the leader of his team this season
Mindaugas Kuzminskas has become the leader of his team this season

Utena, Lithuania – It has become typical of Mindaugas Kuzminskas to finish games with very pretty-looking stat-lines. Game two of the Lithuanian League’s bronze medal series was no exception – the 204 cm (6’9”) 20-year-old blondie had 23 points and 5 rebounds in 29 minutes of court time. Kuzminskas shot the ball with fair decency knocking in 4-of-8 from beyond the arc and making 6-of-13 field goals overall, the player missed only one of his eight attempted free-throws as well.

However, statistics haven’t always been the best way to describe one’s game and tell the true story. Kuzminskas’, just like any other Siauliai player’s, numbers are inflated like a balloon that’s bound to burst as he eventually moves to a team that actually plays with some logic, structure and, most importantly, defense in their game.

Siauliai are known as a very fast-paced team with a high-octane offense and practically no defense, that likes the up-and-down, run-and-gun style. Players have a lot of freedom and can improvise on their for the most part, but Kuzminskas hasn’t been creating much of his own, mostly relying on Derrick Low or Deivydas Gailius to open up space and get the opponent defenses out of shape. It’s hard to miss the fact that Kuzminskas collected most of his points from catch-and-shoot situations after the defense got mixed up in their rotations. That’s not a particularly bad thing, but Siauliai’s opponents in the Lithuanian League aren’t the best defensive teams in the world either and Kuzminskas wouldn’t have nearly as many wide-open looks in a better league against stronger opposition.

When he did decide to put the ball on the court, Kuzminskas didn’t look very confident in driving towards the basket, got muscled out and had his path denied by a defender, who’s about 10 cm (4 in) smaller than him, on several occasions and had to go for strange-looking off-balanced shots. On the other hand, Kuzminskas’ put-back dunk that gave Siauliai a lead with 24 second on the game-clock was probably the most important play of the game.

The player has developed his outside shot but still needs to get stronger to be able to fight for rebounds and effectively play at the power forward position as well as against stronger small forwards, when he eventually makes the move up a level and faces stronger opposition – both physically and skill-wise.

Kuzminskas’ post game isn’t anything very special, he has definitely improved his skills in this department, but still lacks a wider variety of post-moves. He uses spins and pump-fakes to get around even bigger and stronger defenders for open lay-ins, dunks or baby jump-hooks, but that might prove to be too little in the future.

The forward should be complimented for his understanding, feel for the game and basketball IQ ­– he never holds the ball for too long and usually makes timely passes that allow the development of a fluent offensive game, however, he still gets caught off-guard from time to time and has his passes intercepted.

Although the team’s poor defense isn’t helping Kuzminskas at all, he couldn’t be called a good defender himself, but is far from being a liability as well. He gets outsmarted by more experienced players committing fouls in places where he shouldn’t and has troubles getting through screens to catch his defender, but compensates it by his length. Defending stronger players usually ends up with the opponent backing down on Kuzminskas, who doesn’t have the strength to hold his ground yet.

It is widely expected that Kuzminskas will pull out from the 2010 NBA draft and play in Zalgiris Kaunas, where he has signed a long-term contract, next season. With the current roster he might end up being the second option at small forward behind veteran, former Lithuanian National Team player, Dainius Salenga and playing some additional minutes at the power forward position.

by Simonas Baranauskas

Mindaugas Kuzminskas 1989 F 204/6’9″ Siauliai