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big man, high hopes

Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas is seen during practice at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario Wednesday, October 2, 2013.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The NBA education of Toronto Raptors rookie Jonas Valanciunas was just three months under way when Caron Butler decided to dish out a lesson of his own.

The Los Angeles Clippers were playing at the Air Canada Centre in February, and Valanciunas was in possession of the basketball in the dying moments of a rarity – a lopsided Raptors victory.

As the seven-foot Lithuanian neared half court, he was approached by Butler, a veteran small forward who learned the tricks of the basketball trade playing on the tough playgrounds of Racine, Wisc.

Valanciunas didn't stand a chance against the flimflam that was coming his way.

Butler approached Valanciunas ostensibly for a high-five for a job well done and, after Valanciunas complied, Butler suddenly wrestled the ball from the grasp of the unsuspecting rookie and fled up the court toward the basket.

The disbelieving Valanciunas managed to foul Butler before he could complete his layup and the Clippers point guard sank two free throws that trimmed Toronto's winning margin to 98-73.

Valanciunas, now 21, was left red-faced. The Raptors chalked it all up to another learning phase in the career of the young centre. "We just watched that play the other day during film work and it's a classic," Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said in an interview this week.

"Jonas never grew up playing playground basketball like Caron, and never figured a guy would play that kind of a mean trick on you.

"But try that on Jonas now and he's likely to smack you upside the head. He's getting used to the game over here now and that NBA playground mentality."

Valanciunas barely muttered a response when asked if Butler's showmanship still bothered him. "That was an experience, a bad experience," he said. "It's not going to happen again."

Heading into the 2013-14 campaign, the Raptors have high hopes that Valanciunas will continue to be a fast learner when it comes to being a front-line NBA centre.

It has been a position that, more than any other on an NBA team, has continued to be a wasteland over the 19 years of the Raptors' existence.

Who can forget the likes of 6-foot-9, 280-pound behemoth Oliver Miller, who started 61 games at centre for Toronto over two seasons (1996-98) before taking his large appetite to Sacramento and then Phoenix?

Rafael Araujo, the Brazilian bust and former first-round draft pick from 2004 (eighth overall) that ultimately cost Raptors general manager Rob Babcock his job … we won't even go there.

How about Nate Huffman, the 7-foot-1 prospect who talked a good game in 2002, but couldn't back it up on the court when he could only squeeze into seven games?

Acie Earl, Keon Clark, Mamadou N'Diaye – the list of pretenders goes on and on.

The Raptors had Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon for one season (2001-02) in the twilight of his great career, but by that time he was just a shell of his former self.

Loren Woods – Loren Woods! – was the Raptors' regular-season opening-day starter for two years running (2004 and 2005).

An argument could be made Toronto's best pivot was Antonio Davis, who made the NBA all-star team in 2001. But everybody knows Davis was just a power forward masquerading as a centre.

In Valanciunas, the Raptors' top pick (fifth overall) in the 2011 draft, they believe they have finally found the player who will be able to shake the franchise curse.

"[Centres are] very hard to come by and that's why he's very valuable to us, especially with the progress that he's made," Raptors GM Masai Ujiri said.

The Raptors gave Valanciunas a starting role in his rookie season, realizing it would be a tough NBA initiation. The learning curve was steep indeed, as Toronto would go on to post a 34-48 record and miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.

Although he often looked out-of-place on the court, especially on the defensive end, Valanciunas (8.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks per game) also displayed flashes of brilliance and a fearless propensity for taking on all comers.

Valanciunas would make 28 starts before being sidelined for 18 games with a broken finger. He became the first rookie centre to start each of his team's first 20 games of a season since Shaquille O'Neal did it for the Orlando Magic in 1992-93.

"It was a tough start [for Valanciunas], that was one of the reasons why we were 4-19," Casey said. "He went through some growing pains but we had to force feed him for his growth.

"But as the year went on, he really got better, we started going to the post to him, he was producing, he was creating double teams. He was doing such a good job at the post he got the respect of the league as the year went on."

NBA history has shown those teams that have the luxury of constructing a team around a top-flight centre are going to find success.

In 1969, Lew Alcindor (who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971) entered the NBA with a huge expectations and a towering Afro and, by the time his career was concluded, he had been a part of six league championship teams.

Then, there's Bill Russell, who won 11 NBA titles in 13 years with the dynasties of all dynasties, the Boston Celtics.

More recently Olajuwon, probably the first NBA centre to combine both size, power and incredible athleticism, spearheaded the Houston Rockets to back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995.

O'Neal, perhaps the most physically-opposing centre to play the game, clocking in at well over 300 pounds, won three consecutive NBA crowns with the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 2000s, before adding another ring in 2006 with the Miami Heat.

The Celtics had not won an NBA title since 1986, before the addition of Kevin Garnett in a blockbuster trade helped put them over the top in 2008.

Tim Duncan is still playing for San Antonio and still contributing after leading the Spurs to four NBA titles, the last in 2007.

Wayne Embry, the Raptors senior basketball adviser, knows something about the development of big men.

Known as The Wall during his playing days when he was listed at 6 foot 8 and 240 pounds, Embry was an NBA champion with the Celtics in 1968, and a five-time all-star.

Embry said the development of well-rounded NBA centres has been stunted over the years as the game has become faster and more reliant on quicker athletes who are better able to get up and down the court.

And, he said, the specialized coaching seven-footers require is not as available as it was in his playing days.

"It's a complicated position, playing the centre or post position is complicated," Embry said. "You're really the hub of everything that goes around you and there's so many reads you have to be aware of and so many things that you're called upon to do.

"That takes most new bigs these days a little while longer to adapt and the players you're playing with to adapt to you."

The Raptors, whose training camp shifted this weekend to Halifax in preparation for Monday's first preseason game in Boston, have been encouraged by what they've seen in Valanciunas.

He was chosen most valuable player in the NBA summer league in Las Vegas, after manhandling the opponents to the tune of 18.8 points and 10 rebounds per contest, while shooting 56.1 per cent from the field.

He then helped Lithuania win the silver medal at the FIBA European championship, and has showed up at Raptors camp with about 10 more pounds of muscle packed on to his now 240-pound frame.

Valanciunas also found the time to get married, just before the start training camp, which he refers to as a "working honeymoon."

In typical low-key fashion, he is trying to keep his recent success in perspective.

"That all happened in the summer and it stays there," Valanciunas said. "Now, it is a new season and I've got to concentrate on the new season and try to do my best.

"I feel good now, I feel fresh."


The Raptors have not been blessed with superior talent at centre. The players who have held down the position:

1995-96 – Zan Tabak

1996-97 – Zan Tabak

1997-98 – Zan Tabak

*1999 – Kevin Willis

1999-00 – Antonio Davis

2000-01 – Antonio Davis

2001-02 – Hakeem Olajuwon

2002-03 – Jelani McCoy

2003-04 – Antonio Davis

2004-05 – Loren Woods

2005-06 – Loren Woods

2006-07 – Rasho Nesterovic

2007-08 – Andrea Bargnani

2008-09 – Jermaine O'Neal

2009-10 – Andrea Bargnani

2010-11 – Andrea Bargnani

2011-12 – Andrea Bargnani

2012-13 – Jonas Valanciunas