Toronto Raptors players, coaches and managers say they heard what they needed to hear from Jonas Valanciunas a day after the starting centre was arrested for driving while impaired: He was contrite, said he was very sorry, and now they’re ready to move on.
But they’re the only ones who heard those apologies. Valanciunas practised with the team on Tuesday, but did not speak to the unusually large throng of media waiting outside the practice facility for comment about the incident in Wasaga Beach, Ont. on Monday. The team said Valanciunas hadn’t yet consulted legal counsel, so he didn’t speak publicly.
Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, head coach Dwane Casey and other players did speak, and they echoed the same carefully worded message. They said the 21-year-old made a big mistake, and while they don’t take the situation lightly, they fully support the remorseful player they call “a good kid” and a teammate they consider “a little brother.”
Ujiri said it is National Basketball Association policy to let the legal process take place before determining punishments, and the league makes the decision. Valanciunas is expected to play Wednesday against the Philadelphia 76ers, one of the team’s last five regular-season games.
A court date for Valanciunas has been set for April 22, which is during the first round of the playoffs. The Raptors have recently qualified for the first time since 2008.
“I spoke with him yesterday after he drove back, he came to my office and we spoke for an hour, and he was very disappointed. And I think he feels he let his teammates down, the fans, the organization,” said Ujiri. “That’s Jonas – he’s a great kid. He made a mistake, but the most important thing is it’s not going to happen again.”
Ujiri said Valanciunas had been visiting friends in Wasaga Beach, a summer destination on Georgian Bay north of Toronto.
Police say they received a report of a vehicle going through a restaurant drive-through in Wasaga Beach with open beer bottles visible. They then located the vehicle at a home, where they alleged that the driver had been impaired while driving, and Valanciunas was arrested.
“I told him I’m upset with him and disappointed in him, but he’s mine, so we love him,” said Casey. “We don’t condone it, our organization doesn’t condone it and it’s a tough time of year for it, but we’re going through the process right now.” He added: “We all make mistakes, and it’s what you do afterward that tells how we are judged.”
Teammates Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan addressed the media’s questions about Valanciunas while their 6-foot-11 centre finished practice and left the gym.
“He apologized to the team and we talked about it as a group, and we had a great practice today, so I don’t think it’s going to have any ill effects on the team,” said Lowry. “It was just a young guy who made a mistake, he just messed up. He’s sick right now, I tell you that.”
Valanciunas, a Lithuanian centre whom the Raptors picked fifth overall in the 2011 NBA draft, is averaging 11 points and 8.6 rebounds a game this season. He released a statement Monday night after the news broke, saying “I apologize to the organization, my teammates, my family and my fans, and regret any negativity this incident has brought upon them.”
Back in October, the NBA handed down two-game suspensions for both Devin Ebanks of the Dallas Mavericks and Brooklyn Nets coach Jason Kidd in impaired driving cases. Valanciunas must wait to see how his case unfolds.
The playoffs begin April 19, and the Raptors are focused on strengthening their hold on the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
A suspension to Valanciunas won’t help – the Raptors have recently been playing without injured starters Amir Johnson (ankle) and Kyle Lowry (knee). But both men practised well on Tuesday and Casey said they will be game-day decisions on Wednesday.