10-02-2012, 12:18 AM
Join Date: Dec 2007
Grange on Raptors fans: We've got some trust issues
Grange on Raptors: We've got some trust issues - sportsnet.ca
So this is what Hope looks like if you're a Toronto Raptors fan:
Hope's nearly seven-foot tall. Friendly, big wide eyes. Easy to maintain brush cut. Not exactly rippling with muscles, but with broad shoulders and the kind of 20-year-old frame that suggest there are plenty to come.
Hope lives simply. He's got a condominium where he can walk to work without going outside, if necessary and he's learned -- in just two weeks time -- that Toronto is a very European city and parking tickets man, they come fast and furious.
"I will be driving mostly to the airport," is his plan.
Hope is Jonas Valanciunas, the Toronto Raptors Lithuanian big man who -- due to circumstances quite beyond his control -- has become the symbol for a franchise and a fan base that needs what he represents as much as they need what he might actually bring to the floor.
He's cheerful and amiable, even in his second language, and is already a master of the keeper quote:
"Since I was a kid I liked to play hard, I like to win and that helps me. I like the taste of victory."
But this being Toronto, things are never that easy. The Raptors haven't made the playoffs in four years. The Leafs? TFC? The Jays? Exactly.
Hope is great and it's nice to have, but hope tends to stub its toe around here, or lock the door and leave the keys inside. Or worse.
Let's just say we can't help but be suspicious.
The facts of the matter are that Valanciunas was the No. 5 overall pick in a 2011 draft that wasn't considered to be teeming with NBA all-stars. After spending last season playing in Europe he's coming to a team where the last European seven-footer deemed saviour, Andrea Bargnani, earned the title "enigma of all enigmas" from club president Bryan Colangelo.
Valanciunas has proven dominant against his peers -- three times he's won a gold medal for Lithuania and taken home tournament MVP honours at major FIBA age group competitions, including the U19 World Championships -- but has been so-so against men, struggling to find playing time with the Lithuanian national team this past summer at the Olympics.
A much-hyped rookie is a good problem to have, to be sure, as the Raptors begin training camp this week. But finally having Valanciunas in the fold creates a conundrum for Colangelo and the rest of the Raptors basketball staff.
On one hand this is a team that has seen its attendance tumble from 98 per cent capacity in 2007-08 to just 85 per cent during last season's 66-game patience test as even the most ardent supporters knew that immediate results weren't in the cards.
Colangelo says those days are gone:
"This has been a process. It's been a slow process and a painful process. But when you talk about the rebuilding that started two years ago, the building that continued last year; we keep talking about accelerating this process now," Colangelo said. "That's the new word. Clearly we would like to elevate this group to a level where we can compete for the playoffs."
Selling tickets is part of the job, and when you're not selling wins, hope is the next most reliable commodity.
But it's a thin line between hope and hype and it's understandable that Colangelo would want to be extra careful not to cross it as it would be unfair to a young guy from another country … Um, hold that thought.
"He's a guy (Valanciunas) who will have a tremendous impact on our team whether it shows up in the stat sheet or not," Colangelo said, his only caveat being that as a young big Valanciunas will have to learn how to stay out of foul trouble. Stay away from some ticky-tacky fouls and the sky's the limit.
"He hasn't had an official NBA practice yet, let's not jump to conclusions," said Colangelo. "But what we see is undeniable in terms of having an impact on the floor."
But the typically effusive Colangelo isn't the only one who thinks Valanciunas can make a difference this season.
Raptors head coach Dwane Certainly Casey is equally pumped at the prospect of adding a player with the young Lithuanian's attributes -- long, quick, tough, high energy, to name a few -- to a roster badly in need of just what he's expected to provide.
"He's one of the most talented, athletic seven-footers around," said Casey. "I was fortunate to be at the University of Kentucky when Sam Bowie was there. He's got the kind of hands that Sam had; he's quicker. He's a better athlete than Sam at a young age. He doesn't shoot it like Sam at this stage … but he's got all the tools. His athleticism is there and his 'let's go' button is already pushed."
Sam Bowie? Did he say Sam Bowie?
Now there's an interesting and telling comparison to lay at the feet -- pun intended -- of your franchise altering big man. I'll save you the trip to Google if you don't know who Sam Bowie is. Certainly Casey was paying a high compliment to Valanciunas in comparing him with the former UK star. Despite some major leg injuries in college he was good enough that the Portland Trail Blazers took him No. 2 overall -- ahead of some guy named Michael Jordan -- in the 1984 draft.
The punch line -- though it's not funny at all -- is that after a solid rookie season Bowie played just 63 games over the next four years due to a slew of foot and leg problems. Portland taking him ahead of Jordan might be the worst draft mistake a team has ever made -- unless you count Portland taking Greg Oden ahead of Kevin Durant -- but you get the picture.
Given that Valanciunas' first sighting around town was a picture on Twitter of him wearing a walking boot to protect a calf strain he suffered during an informal workout last week and you can only hope Casey recalling a gifted yet star-crossed big man from the past was a coincidence and nothing more.
For the record the walking boot is gone and Valanciunas said his calf is much better, though no one was saying if he might get on the floor with his teammates in training camp in Halifax this starting Tuesday.
It's considered a minor setback, but the point is obvious:
How will Toronto embrace this guy Hope? Let's just say it's understandable if there are going to be some trust issues in the early going. But we promise we'll work on it.
It's not you Jonas; really, you seem great.