Jonas Valanciunas was knocked about by some of the biggest and best centres in the league in an inauspicious start to his NBA career.
Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez, Al Jefferson, Kevin Garnett — no matter the night, it was going to be a long one for the Toronto Raptors rookie.
And as Valanciunas’s debut went, so went the Raptors, it seems.
“Jonas took his whuppin’ last year early,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. “We were 3 and 19 [to start the season]. [Opponents] saw something good to eat with a rookie at centre. That had something to do with our points in the paint, our rim protection. . .”
But the growth of the young Lithuanian over the course of the season became one of Casey’s biggest sources of pride in a campaign he otherwise didn’t have a lot to be thrilled about.
“He had to learn. We knew that going in, that it was going to be ugly,” Casey said. “But as the year went on you could see a young man growing, and it continued through this summer. It’s not a finished product yet but he’s getting there and I really like what we have.”
What Casey has is a stronger, more confident Valanciunas, whose command of English is also much improved from a year ago — evident in his attempt at rapping when asked on media day for his favourite Drake song.
“Started from the bottom now we’re here,” Valanciunas said in his Lithuanian accent, prompting much laughter.
But Valanciunas, who’s considered a huge piece of the franchise’s future after the Raptors selected him with their No. 5 pick in the 2011 draft, has been otherwise all business in his approach to his sophomore season.
The seven-foot centre has put on weight. He’s noticeably broader across the chest, his arms are thicker. Lithuanian national team coach Kestutis Kemzura went so far as to say Valanciunas had put on too much weight.
“His coach is a great coach, does a great job,” Casey said of Kemzura. “But his gradual increasing his weight will be good for him. We’re not trying to rush him to get bigger, just maintain his strength. He’s got some obstacles to go against in the paint, and if you don’t have some girth. . . you’re in for trouble. He’s learning to play with that extra weight right now so we’re not concerned about it.”
The 21-year-old Valanciunas made 57 starts for Toronto last season, averaging 8.9 points and 6.0 rebounds. His field goal percentage, rebounds and blocks ranked among the league’s top-three for rookies.
He went on to shine for the Raptors in the Las Vegas Summer League, winning tournament MVP honours, and then helped Lithuania to its first Euroleague final in 10 years.
He’s healthy this camp, after a calf injury sidelined him for last year’s camp. And his teammates say the changes in the big Lithuanian from last season are obvious.
“He’s extremely tanned right now. I don’t know where that came from,” joked Landry Fields. “He’s looking a lot bigger, a lot stronger, and more comfortable this year.
“With him toward the end of the season last year, you could really see him get comfortable with who he is, and his role on the team, and I think with more practice, and the preseason, what we saw toward the end of last year will come along at the beginning of this year.”
Valanciunas continues to take English classes and Fields said the improvement in his ability to communicate with teammates has been huge.
“That is definitely something that will help him in his comfort level, and us with him, when we try to explain something, he’s understanding. That just takes his learning curve that much higher,” Fields said. “As soon as he gets it down pat to where it’s almost kind of slang, then we’ll really be getting somewhere. Looking forward to that.”
Valanciunas isn’t ready to talk about his rate of improvement, preferring to say he still has a long way to go.
“If I’m not going to work nothing is going to happen,” he said, when asked for his thoughts on being the future of the franchise. “It depends how I work, and how is going to be my learning process. I’m not thinking ‘Now I’m a future star.’ I know I’m a simple guy, and I have to work really hard to one day be a star.”
Former NBA all-star and Toronto native Jamaal Magloire is helping him put in that work in a training camp all the big men say has been physically intense thus far.
“Huge,” Casey said on Magloire’s role. “He beats the crap out of J.V. every day. He gets him used to the contact.
“We have some two-on-one drills where [Magloire] still gets in there and cracks people, they know it’s not like a little coach in there with pads on, it’s a real seven-foot guy who will knock you on your butt if you don’t come in the right way. Jamaal does a great job of that, he’s still in shape, and he’s done a heck of a job of being a vocal and physical mentor to a lot of our inside players.”
The Raptors train Thursday in Toronto before departing for Halifax for two days.