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Jeff Blair

Give Raptors' Valanciunas a chance to prove himself Add to ...

Jonas Valanciunas’s rookie-year statistics are anybody’s guess but this is one thing we know for certain: he is going to get screwed over royally by NBA officials, because nothing screams two quick fouls like the sight of a seven-foot, Lithuanian rookie.

The NBA is a league of first- and second-class citizens, and the first-class, first-name guys are always given first crack at second chances by the people who whistle while they work because they sell jerseys and help TV ratings. Seriously: the NBA’s big officiating “initiative” this year is flopping, the unmanly act of drawing fouls that most seem to think is perfected by (you guessed it) international players.

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The Raptors continue their exhibition season Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre against the Washington Wizards, and coach Dwane Casey’s fondest wish is that point guard Kyle Lowry – who is supposed to free us from Jose Calderon – has recovered from an adductor muscle strain so he can start figuring out how Valanciunas and Andrea Bargnani can best be served in the flow of the game.

Casey already believes that Valanciunas can be “one of the best rollers in the league,” and he wants his point guards to realize that even if he’s not open on the pick and roll it means somebody on the weak side should be. “We need to get used to it, because you have to reward him for all his hard work and running the floor,” Casey said Friday, after Valanciunas played 29 minutes and two seconds, scoring 11 points while hauling down 13 rebounds and picking up three personal fouls in an 82-75 win over the Detroit Pistons, and being constantly overlooked by Calderon and John Lucas III.

Valanciunas can do things on his own to smooth the transition from international basketball to the NBA. Casey has told Valanciunas to make sure he knows each official’s name. “You don’t want to be going ‘Hey, ref,‘” Casey said, chuckling. “You need to call them by name. Get to know them, because they’re part of the landscape.” And the Raptors have tried to get Valanciunas to understand that fouls 35 feet from the basket are, in the words of assistant coach Johnny Davis, “empty fouls.” When he is running a screen, the Raptors want him to leave it up to the guard to make it work, and not lean out on his man.

“He has to learn how to make sure he keeps his leverage in the post,” Casey said. “We also talk a lot about unnecessary help; about trying to go for every block. That’s where Jonas will get his fouls; if he’s too anxious in the post with his hands.”

Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo took grief from some quarters when he selected Valanciunas fifth in the 2011 draft, an understandable reaction given that in this city, drafting a European is code-word for “can’t keep American-born players happy.” Plus, Bargnani has become an easy target for fan discontent and drive-by media sniping. It all added up to: “Another Euro, Bryan? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

But there is something about Valanciunas, the FIBA Europe Young Men’s Player of the Year in 2011, that makes it awfully difficult not to openly cheer for him. He appears a decent fellow, is absolutely fearless in diving in to English-language interviews (he does not reach for the crutch that could be asking Linas Kleiza, a fellow Lithuanian, to serve as a translator) and he has a disarming, almost subliminal presence. Friday, Valanciunas was one of the last players to come out of the whirlpool/shower area. He stood politely, wrapped in a large, blue towel, and waited quietly behind a scrum with his hands folded as Lucas III entertained the media in the stall next to his. Upon being granted entry to his own stall, he plopped himself down in his folding chair, took note that there were no cameras present, and proceeded to do interviews without slipping into his civvies. That is not Media Training 101, but he’ll get it, and the hope here is that Raptors fans will get it, and that instead of seeing a new scapegoat, they’ll have Valanciunas’s back.

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