Jonas Valanciunas challenges LeBron James, a player most defenders guard without incident (Getty).
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In the first of Wednesday's Olympic quarterfinal games, Group B winner Russia takes on Lithuania, the squad that gave Team USA its biggest scare of the preliminary round. Yet, while the Lithuanians impressed in that game and several others, one of their more high-profile talents hasn't been at his best.
Jonas Valanciunas, the fifth pick in the 2011 NBA draft and soon-to-be Toronto Raptors rookie, is a well-regarded young big man with a lot of promise. In this tournament, however, he has played only 54 minutes in five games, averaging 3.6 points per game on 52.9 percent shooting and 3.0 rebounds per game. He has not out-and-out embarrassed himself, but he also hasn't been close to the player that many expected him to be.
"There you go, this is the thing with Jonas," Kemzura told Sporting News. "Sometimes, he wants to come in and do everything right away. In his head, he is working too fast. He is young, that happens. But he needs to slow down."
This is probably not what Raptors fans were hoping to see from Valanciunas, who will join the team this year, though coach Dwane Casey and general manager Bryan Colangelo have been trying to tamp down expectations. If you're looking for a reason that Valanciunas, who the Raptors selected with the No. 5 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, played only 8:32 against the U.S., and why he is averaging just 3.6 points in 10.6 minutes in the first five games of the Olympics, Kemzura's remarks provide it. [...]
That was the case on Saturday, when Team USA played Chandler just 8:04, and Kemzura pulled Valanciunas when Chandler was not on the floor. Valanciunas scored just four points, and had two rebounds and two turnovers. Monday against Tunisia, Valanciunas played just 12 minutes, missed both shots he took, had six rebounds and three turnovers.
As Deveney notes, this is not an ideal situation for the Raptors, who are counting on Valanciunas to be a legitimate option in the pick-and-roll game and improve his defense at a fast enough rate to justify a decent amount of minutes. The fact that he's been just mediocre against high-level international competition isn't the best sign, particularly considering that his teammate Darius Songaila has been very good despite being little more than an end-of-the-bench option in nine NBA seasons before heading back to Europe in 2011.
On the other hand, Valanciunas hasn't exactly been able to ease into this challenge — at 20 years old, he's playing very good competition, including a team of American All-Stars, in a high-pressure environment. Expectations aren't normal, either; these games are of massive importance for his basketball-mad country and there's very little margin for error. By contrast, the Raptors will give Valanciunas time to carve out a role with room to make mistakes. They have hopes of making the playoffs this season, but they also have a full preseason and 82 regular-season games to let him figure things out. Plus, we've seen many times that the international and NBA games are different enough that success in one doesn't always translate to the other.
The Raptors would prefer that Valanciunas play better, obviously, and they'll watch the Russia game with keen interest. But his play is by no means a death sentence for his NBA career. In reality, everyone should be more mindful of the specific skills he's showing and his ability to improve. Let's not get too riled up about his NBA prospects before his career even starts.
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