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Old 09-13-2011, 11:32 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Raptors ESPN: Valanciunas living up to all the hype

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VILNIUS, Lithuania -- How many of the presumed NBA rookie class of 2012 already have a 100-foot tall Nike billboard adorning the side of a building in their hometown? No hard and fast research is available, but likely no more than one.

How many of next year's NBA arrivals have a song written about them that is capable of getting 11,000 Lithuanians chanting in unison? We can say with more certainty that Jonas Valanciunas probably stands alone here as the subject of a hip-hop mix that has, when last we checked, racked up more than 200,000 hits on YouTube.

Google or download "Valanciunas (Big V Lithuanian Hero)," by the Miami-based crew O'Grime if you dare. But the impact of the 19-year-old center, who was drafted fifth overall by the Toronto Raptors last June, has been music to the ears of his compatriots at EuroBasket -- and, one imagines, to the brain trust of Canada's NBA franchise who have staked their reputation on his potential.


Through seven games, as the tournament hosts advanced into the quarterfinals, he has averaged 10.4 points and 3.6 rebounds, an efficient haul in only 17.4 minutes per night. Impressive for a player who is six years younger than anyone else on the Lithuanian roster, he has increasingly been on the court at key times. It is a reward, he says, for a year of dedication that bore dividends in July's FIBA Under-19 world championship in Latvia, where he led his country to an unexpected gold medal while taking the MVP award for the tournament. Now he's getting his shot at the big guns, and taking advantage.

"Last year I got some experience in the Euroleague which was good for me, going up against big centers across all of Europe. It was a big boost for me," he revealed to ESPN.com.

"It's hard to make the transition from youth basketball to the senior teams. First, you have to not be scared of the players. Then you have to do your best. I feel good but I can't stop working because if I do, I'll be staying where I am. I want to go further."

He remains, for one more year, under contract to the Lithuanian club Lietuvos Rytas before becoming a free agent and available to temptation by the Raptors. Many in Ontario -- perhaps scarred by the Andrea Bargnani factor -- were perturbed when a lottery pick was used on a relative unknown, especially one who isn't immediately available for duty.

"I don't think I'm ready for the NBA yet," he said. "I still have one more year here and I'm going to do a lot of physical work, getting my body stronger. Then we'll see."

There is a genuine work ethic that has impressed his country's staff in recent months. Valanciunas admits he needs to improve his low-post game -- and he has been using the limited practice time here to add to his repertoire.

"He's a player who is very clever," declared Lithuania's assistant coach Valdemaras Chomicius. "You can communicate with him and he takes it on board immediately. You show him things, he concentrates on it and tries to put it into use quickly."

Eurobasket - Jonas Valanciunas living up to the hype - ESPN
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