Jonas Valanciunas couldn’t have envisioned such an NBA debut when he was drafted nearly a year and a half ago.
Not only will he start in the Raptors’ season opener Wednesday, matching up against an NBA all-star, the Lithuanian centre is being touted as the future of the franchise for a team aching to get back to the playoffs for the first time in five years.
That’s a lot sitting on the shoulders of a 20-year-old — but Valanciunas sounds up to the task.
“I’m not feeling big pressure,” he said in his thick Lithuanian accent. “I feel small pressure because we need to win, because everybody is expecting us to win now because no hockey, everybody is going to be concentrating on basketball.
“But it’s just basketball. You have to step on the court and do your things. If you’re going to think about pressure, or what the guys (are) talking about you, it’s not going to be good.”
Valanciunas will battle 2012 all-star Roy Hibbert when the Raptors host the Indiana Pacers in their season opener on Wednesday. The Toronto rookie finally makes his long-awaited debut after the Raptors selected him fifth overall in the 2011 draft but left him in Lithuania for another season of development.
Raptors coach Dwane Casey admitted he’s nervous for his young player.
“I want Jonas to do well, I want him to perform well, and he’s going against an experienced guy who knows all the tricks,” Casey said after Tuesday’s practice at the Air Canada Centre. “It’s experience against inexperience, but this is the only way this young man is going to learn. Throw him out there in the fire, let him make his mistakes, and learn from them.”
Valanciunas is one of three new starters for Toronto — the others are Kyle Lowry and Landry Fields. Valanciunas earned his spot with strong play in the pre-season, making five starts and averaging 8.3 points and 6.8 rebounds.
“I was not expecting to be the coach’s starting centre, I expected just 10 minutes, and he’s giving me a lot so I feel really great,” Valanciunas said. “I feel support from the coach, from the players, it’s amazing.
“I think this is the best spot for me to play basketball.”
Casey knows the 6-11 centre could be feeling some nerves in front of a full arena Wednesday night, and that this season could well play out like a roller-coaster ride for a young European player learning about the NBA.
But the coach said he and his staff takes great care with the rookies. Each first-year player is assigned an assistant coach. They examine video and talk after every practice.
“It’s always a conversation with rookies, it’s always ‘hey Rookie.’ They may think their name is something different,” Casey said, laughing. “But we’re on the rookies all the time ... so we’re looking at this as a growing process, every moment they’re on the court is a teaching moment for them.”
While the real season hasn’t even started, Valanciunas has already proven to be a fan favourite. He has been recognized when he’s out, whether at training camp in Halifax, an exhibition game in Montreal, or in Toronto.
When a journalist pointed out that a professional athlete can live “like a rock star,” Valanciunas scoffed.
“I’m not a rock star. It’s not for me,” he said. “I’m not trying to be like a famous player, or the most liked by fans. I’m doing my things. If fans like that, that’s great, I like to talk with the fans, I need support from the fans.”
Casey said fans will love the fact Valanciunas is “a hard-hat guy.”
“The fans of Toronto will love him just because he hits first and asks questions later. Maybe too much so,” the coach said. “He’s the kind of kid where we’re saying, ‘Whoa, slow it down.’ But I love him as a player because he comes out ready to go. You don’t have to say giddy-up to him.
“He’s ready to play, he’s ready to rebound, he’s ready to hit, he’s ready to scream, do all the things you need your big man to do.”
Valanciunas averaged 14.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks a game in the Lithuanian league last season, and was named both the FIBA Europe Young Men’s Player of the Year in 2011 and the Most Entertaining Player at the Lithuanian league all-star game.
He’s one of 17 international rookies from 12 different countries on NBA opening-night rosters. The league boasts a record-tying 84 international players this season.
The Raptors have a few of their own in Valanciunas, fellow Lithuanian Linas Kleiza, Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon.
“It sounds like the league of nations out there sometimes,” Casey said. “Lithuanian, Italian, Spanish.”
Valanciunas has proven to be an enthusiastic talker on the court, which pleases Casey.
“There’s an old saying, you can always hear good defence,” the coach said.
The language barrier is proving problematic with some of the terminology, as players are asked to call out coverages — a temporary dilemma as Valanciunas continues to work on his English.
“It’s just making sure Jonas is saying the right thing,” Casey said. “I don’t want to give everything away, but there’s technical things to say, that’s where he’s having trouble. He’s saying the whole technical lingo to a T, where there’s just one word you can say that helps everybody.”
Bargnani was held out of Tuesday’s practice with flu-like symptoms, but Casey is counting on the big Italian — who missed more than half of last season with a calf injury — to provide most of Toronto’s offence this upcoming campaign.
“[We need him to] to come in and lead us,” Casey said. “We’re going to go as far offensively as he takes us because he’s such a threat, a three-point threat on the court.
“He’s one of our most respected three-point shooters on the team. That’s what he means to us. He needs to get off to a good start ... not only offensively but do the same things defensively he did for us [last season].”