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Yahoo: Valanciunas ready to win fans over
Toronto Raptor fans rejoice, Jonas Valanciunas is ready to win you over | Ball Don't Lie - Yahoo! Sports
"He loves to dunk. Everything around the rim, he just tries to tear the rim down."
Describing the game of Lithuanian national team teammate Jonas Valanciunas, Real Madrid guard Martynas Pocius didn't waste any time before mentioning the dunking. It's Valanciunas' favourite thing. Actually, rebounding and dunking, Valanciunas says, when asked what he loves best when on the basketball court.
When the Toronto Raptors selected Valanciunas with the fifth pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, their fan base wasn't initially sure how to react. After a handful of disappointing seasons, missing the playoffs and losing Chris Bosh, they wanted something to be excited about. A player they were familiar with. A personality they could easily root for. Instead, they were given a European big man they didn't know much about, but were promised they would love.
A year later (Valanciunas had to spend another season with Lietuvos Rytas before joining the Raptors) it took just one week of training camp for all of the players, coaching staff and front office personnel to realize that in addition to drafting a big man with a ton of potential, they'd also drafted one of the most personable players in the '11 draft class. He is exactly what Toronto fans have been waiting for.
While Valanciunas missed almost all of training camp because of a calf injury and has played in just two preseason games thus far, the hype is here and it's easy to see why. A 20 year-old seven-footer who likes contact, has good hands, makes free throws with ease and loves basketball is a sight for sore eyes.
Let's get this out of the way right now: Jonas Valanciunas loves the game of basketball. Not in the love-it-because-I'm tall-and-this-is-what-I'm-going-to-do kind of way. He loves it in the because-it's-all-I-do-because-all-I-want-to-do-is-win-and-all-I-want-to-be-is-the-best kind of way.
"In my blood," is how Valanciunas explained his passion for the game while pointing to his heart beating below his practice uniform. "I was really young … I came to the basketball practice. Since that time, I've been in love with basketball."
In Lithuania where basketball is life in the way that hockey seems to rule Canada, Valanciunas has been living away from his family since he was 14 years old (that's six years of living solo prior to this rookie season). It wasn't easy on Valanciunas' mother, Danute, to allow her son to move to Vilnius alone at such a young age, but he feels it has made him better prepared for NBA life here in North America.
"[The] first year was really hard," Valanciunas explained. "After a year, after two years, I adjusted and that made it easier. I think it helped for me. Now I can stay alone. For example, now in Toronto it's a new city for me and I'm alone here." He quickly continued, "I'm not alone, I have my teammates, actually. But no one from my family is here."
While Valanciunas was falling in love with basketball, his mother had other plans for him.
"I was in dance lessons since I was young," he said with a smile. "I was, I think, eight years old. I was dancing. I was in dance lessons. It took me three years and I quit after I realized that basketball is my way. My life way." He flashed that grin as he shook his head and emphasized, "Basketball. Not dancing."
Jonas won't dance, don't ask him (Getty Images)Despite their differing views on his destined career, Valanciunas credits his mother with keeping him grounded and said they are very close and talk often via Skype. The two will be reunited this Christmas when Danute comes to Toronto to spend the holiday with her son.
Lithuanians are relieved that Valanciunas recognized his gifts and fell in love with their sport. Arvydas Sabonis, a Hall of Famer and the most talented pivot man ever to come out of Lithuania, was quoted in a story by Sports Illustrated writer Luke Winn as saying, "…Valanciunas is the future of our country. We don't have another big man like him.