"He loves to dunk. Everything around the rim, he just tries to tear the rim down."
Describing the game of Lithuanian national team teammate Jonas Valanciunas, Real Madrid guard Martynas Pocius didn't waste any time before mentioning the dunking. It's Valanciunas' favorite thing. Actually, rebounding and dunking, Valanciunas says, when asked what he loves best when on the basketball court.
When the Toronto Raptors selected Valanciunas with the fifth pick in the 2011 NBA draft, their fan base wasn't initially sure how to react. After a handful of disappointing seasons, missing the playoffs and losing Chris Bosh, they wanted something to be excited about. A player they were familiar with. A personality they could easily root for. Instead, they were given a European big man they didn't know much about, but were promised they would love.
A year later (Valanciunas had to spend another season with Lietuvos Rytas before joining the Raptors) it took just one week of training camp for all of the players, coaching staff and front office personnel to realize that in addition to drafting a big man with a ton of potential, they'd also drafted one of the most personable players in the '11 draft class. He is exactly what Toronto fans have been waiting for.
While Valanciunas missed almost all of training camp because of a calf injury and has played in just two preseason games thus far, the hype is here and it's easy to see why. A 20-year-old 7-footer who likes contact, has good hands, makes free throws with ease and loves basketball is a sight for sore eyes.
Let's get this out of the way right now: Jonas Valanciunas loves the game of basketball. Not in the love-it-because-I'm tall-and-this-is-what-I'm-going-to-do kind of way. He loves it in the because-it's-all-I-do-because-all-I-want-to-do-is-win-and-all-I-want-to-be-is-the-best kind of way.
"In my blood," is how Valanciunas explained his passion for the game while pointing to his heart beating below his practice uniform. "I was really young … I came to the basketball practice. Since that time, I've been in love with basketball."
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In Lithuania where basketball is life in the way that hockey seems to rule Canada, Valanciunas has been living away from his family since he was 14 years old (that's six years of living solo prior to this rookie season). It wasn't easy on Valanciunas' mother, Danute, to allow her son to move to Vilnius alone at such a young age, but he feels it has made him better prepared for NBA life here in North America.
"[The] first year was really hard," Valanciunas explained. "After a year, after two years, I adjusted and that made it easier. I think it helped for me. Now I can stay alone. For example, now in Toronto it's a new city for me and I'm alone here." He quickly continued, "I'm not alone, I have my teammates, actually. But no one from my family is here."
While Valanciunas was falling in love with basketball, his mother had other plans for him.
"I was in dance lessons since I was young," he said with a smile. "I was, I think, 8 years old. I was dancing. I was in dance lessons. It took me three years and I quit after I realized that basketball is my way. My life way." He flashed that grin as he shook his head and emphasized, "Basketball. Not dancing."
Despite their differing views on his destined career, Valanciunas credits his mother with keeping him grounded and said they are very close and talk often via Skype. The two will be reunited this Christmas when Danute comes to Toronto to spend the holiday with her son.
Lithuanians are relieved that Valanciunas recognized his gifts and fell in love with their sport. Arvydas Sabonis, a Hall of Famer and the most talented pivot man ever to come out of Lithuania, was quoted in a story by Sports Illustrated writer Luke Winn as saying, "…Valanciunas is the future of our country. We don't have another big man like him."
Coming from a Lithuanian hero, those are lofty words of praise. When presented with them, Valanciunas shrugged them off immediately. With an endearing lack of self-indulgence, he explained. "I don't care because I need to improve. It's good that he says that. I feel pleasure about that, I feel good because of that, but you know, I have to prove that. That is just words, I need to prove it."
Talk to the coaching staff or his teammates and you will only find a support system who believe that he will fulfill his potential. Unlike some players who have the skill, but leave you questioning their desire, Valanciunas wants little more than to work his way to the top of this league, while expressing respect for his new colleagues.
"All players are good in this league," he explained. "Each one is special. One can rebound good. One is real athletic. Everyone is special. I want to bring my specialties." Despite his appreciation of the NBA, neither his confidence nor his goals have been shaken since arriving in Toronto.
"For me basketball is about victories," he said. "If you're playing basketball you have to want to win. For me, from the young days, I want to win. I want to be in the first place. Everything is about competing."
For further evidence of this competitive nature, ask one of the other big men on the Raptors roster. After being cleared to practice last week, veteran Amir Johnson had a laugh as he told the media that Valanciunas was cutting in front of teammates during lineups for drills because he was so anxious to get going. "I had to tell him, 'Slow down, young fella,'" Johnson laughed.
When Valanciunas talks about the differences between the NBA and basketball in Europe, it's easy to see why he has been champing at the bit to get things going in practice.
"In Europe we had two practices a day," he said. "I came here and it's one practice a day; so there's extra free time, so I'm trying to spend that extra free time in the gym working out."
Asked what he likes to do when he's not playing basketball, he paused, said, "video games," and then continued, "I don't know. Everything about basketball. Basketball is my passion, my life. I spend so much time on the court, a lot of time on the court. I don't have too much free time; I'd rather be on the court."
The personality that Raptors staffers have been raving about comes out immediately upon meeting him. Save for his first media day scrum where he faced a crush of reporters and admitted to them that, hey, I'm nervous, Valanciunas has been telling jokes and deadpanning his delivery ever since he arrived to Toronto last month and his teammates love him for it.
"Jonas, he's got a great sense of humor," DeMar DeRozan shared. "I didn't know he was going to be that funny. He's pretty funny, man. I was walking by him the other day and he was listening to Gucci Mane. Yeah, it surprised me. He was listening to Gucci Mane. He probably's got more rap on his iPod than me."
John Lucas III's locker is next to Valanciunas' in the locker room. The two lively new Raptors have developed a great rapport already. After a recent game against the Pistons, the veteran told the rookie that he wanted him to pick up breakfast from McDonald's the next morning and deliver it to him at 7:00 a.m. Valancinuas smiled and calmly looked toward the media herd assembled in front of him. "Help me out, guys? Can you help me?" he asked, and then smiled broadly when the locker room erupted into laughter. Lucas shook his head, laughed to himself and told Valanciunas he was only joking and that since the next day would be their first off day since training camp, he didn't want to see him.
As Lucas was getting ready to leave the locker room, Valanciunas pointed at the loud gold and silver sneakers that the point guard was wearing. "That's swag," he said with a look of satisfaction on his face as his proper usage of the word was rewarded with smiles around the room.
From his efforts to try and learn slang terms to his dedication on the court, Lucas has been impressed with the approach Valanciunas has shown thus far.
"He's going to be a very successful NBA player in this league," Lucas said. "He's young, he's hungry. He's still learning he's like a sponge soaking everything up, but he's not getting frustrated. You say something to him and he's like, 'OK, I got you,' and he corrects it. If he doesn't understand he'll come talk to you and figure it out. When you have a young guy like that, shoot, sky is the limit for them."
Pocius, who played at Duke for four seasons before returning to Europe to play for Zalgiris Kaunas and now Real Madrid, also said that Valanciunas has the right stuff to make it in the league.
"First of all, he's a great kid," Pocius said. "Has heart, great attitude, hard working. He's also very, very gifted. Really athletic, really long arms and he definitely takes advantage of that. Especially in pick and rolls. He picks and then he rolls really well with his arms up the whole time. If you just give the ball to him, just (motioning with his hands) boom. Dunk. I think it's going to be exciting to watch him as the season goes on. He'll adjust more and more to the game and it'll be more and more fun to watch him. I think with time he will get stronger, like I said this is just the beginning. I think he can make an impact right from the start for sure."
Dwane Casey feels the same way, throwing Valanciunas out with the starting lineup in Toronto's game against the Pistons. It was the second game for Valanciunas and he picked up 11 points and eight rebounds in his 29 minutes of action. In each of his two preseason games, Valanciunas has walked over to each of the three officials prior to the game and extended a hand to introduce himself by saying, "Hi, I'm Jonas."
He does the same with the media members who cover him each day, making it his goal to learn their names and choosing to open his media scrums by asking how their days have been, then patiently waiting for their responses.
While things on the court have come with ease, he said the only thing that trips him up —language wise— is the slang his teammates are tossing around off of it. "Slang, that slang. There's a lot of things that I'm just like, 'What?' but they explain it and then I get it." he said with a head shake, before continuing, "Everybody on this team is really good guys. They know that I'm different because I'm from Europe. The language and all that stuff, they're helping me, they're supporting me. I'm happy."
"He's comfortable," DeRozan said with a smile. "You can tell he's real comfortable. He's not shy at all. He's cool. He's got a hell of a sense of humor, too."
In addition to being happy with his teammates, Valanciunas is also thrilled to finally be in the NBA. "This is the best league in the world," he said. "I think all basketball players want to play in this league, so me, too." As for his new city, he's a fan of the diversity, calling it a "great, great city." Asked what he'd like Raptors fans to know about him he doesn't hesitate in saying, "That I love the fans. I love the fans. I love the basketball fans. Back home I always was talking with fans. For me it's not a problem to sign autographs or take a picture. For me that's OK."
The thing that stands out most about Valanciunas -- more than his considerable height, more than his sharpened sense of humor -- is his humanity. He's personable and kind, unbelievably comfortable in his skin and unabashedly excited about the opportunity to play in the NBA. It's hard to believe he's only 20 years old.
Look at some of the billboards of him from Lithuania and it's hard to believe he's so grounded.
"He's a kid from a little country town in Lithuania," Pocius explained. "He grew up there with his mom. Just over the past couple of years he sort of got big, popular or whatever. I don't think that has changed him a lot. It's a good thing. He's still humble, he's still a good guy."
He's a kid from a little country town in Lithuania who grew up with huge basketball dreams and a hunger to win that continues to get stronger.
"I want to be me," Valanciunas said. "I want to be Jonas and I want to have a great career in the NBA. That's my dream and I want to make my dream come true."
He also wants NBA fans to know one thing.
"I really love basketball. That's about it."