It was late in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s game in Charlotte against the Bobcats, when a visibly agitated Rudy Gay – the Toronto Raptors’ best player – started yammering at one of the officials over a perceived missed call.
With the outcome of the game still very much in doubt, what happened next was somewhat surprising.
Rookie centre Jonas Valanciunas quickly approached the seven-year NBA veteran in an effort to calm Gay down in what was a pivotal point in the game.
It was a savvy move, one not normally expected from a 20-year-old Lithuanian still feeling his way in a tough North American league.
“He’s got a great head, he really does,” marvelled Leo Rautins, the Raptors television analyst. “It’s even more impressive when you know it’s an international guy because there’s going to be more adjustments.
“He’s probably the most consistent rookie I’ve seen. His personality every day is exactly the same. He can have the best game in the world, he can have the worst game in the world. But he’s smiling and ready to work the next day.”
Although Gay quickly regained his composure and would finish with a team-high 25 points, the Raptors fizzled down the stretch once again in a 107-101 Bobcats’ win.
It was the third loss in the Raptors’ last four games as they continue to play out the string in a disappointing year that will continue Friday at the Air Canada Centre against the playoff-bound New York Knicks.
The Raptors will take on the Knicks again Saturday in New York at Madison Square Garden.
Although the season has been basically a writeoff for the Raptors (26-42), the steady improvement of Valanciunas, their top pick (fifth overall) in the 2011 draft, has been one of the few bright spots.
The seven-foot centre continues to impress with a no-nonsense approach to the game, willing to mix it up beneath the boards with a fearless demeanour that belies his relative inexperience.
Rautins points out that Valanciunas doesn’t appear to get fazed by anything – a trait he first noted in November, when the Raptors battled a veteran-laden San Antonio Spurs team into overtime before falling 111-106.
Valanciunas scored 22 points and seven rebounds and gave Tim Duncan, who has enjoyed a hall of fame career, all he could handle.
“He doesn’t care if it’s Tim Duncan or somebody else,” Rautins noted. “He just wants to play and compete.”
“He doesn’t back down from anybody, and that’s something you can’t teach,” Gay added.
With the recent news that power forward Andrea Bargnani will not play again this year, after reinjuring his arm, along with the fact head coach Dwane Casey intends to play his younger players as much as he can in the few remaining games, Valanciunas has seen his minutes jump dramatically of late.
In the last five games, Valanciunas has been averaging slightly less than 30 minutes a game and has responded, averaging 13.2 points and seven rebounds. Against Charlotte, Valanciunas chipped in with 18 points and eight rebounds.
“I’m glad I have a lot of minutes right now to play,” Valanciunas said. “That’s helping to develop me.”
At practice on Thursday, Gay was wearing a pair of blue prescription goggles as he worked on his shot. He said he might soon be wearing the glasses in games, perhaps even Friday.
“Maybe, if I’m comfortable in them,” he said. “I’ve been playing like this for years and anything extra is an adjustment.”
Gay said he recently had his eyes checked and was told that he had “some imbalance” in his vision he hopes the glasses will offset.