Summer League can bring out some hidden gems–players who were lost in the rotation of their teams, or out of the league itself. It can also be an opportunity for teams to take a second look at under-achieving players.
Valanciunas wasn’t a bust, but he wasn’t a 5th overall pick that the Raptors had to wait an entire year for.
This summer league saw Valanciunas showing he was worth the wait.
Opposing big men just can’t seem to help themselves, no matter how many times their coaches scream the simple two-word instruction.
When 21-year-old Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas wheels to face the basket, he invariably keeps the ball up by his ear and in constant motion. He fakes, and fakes, and then bends and really fakes, and eventually post defenders forget their instructions — very simple instructions, mind you — and leave their feet.
“Stay down!” Over and over again, those words have rung out from summer-league sidelines. Over and over again, the words have eventually gone unheeded, as Valanciunas’ fakes prove to be too magnetic. “Stay down!” Too late, another defender is in the air and Valanciunas is already scooting past him, heading straight for the rim.
Every time the 7-foot Valanciunas, the fifth pick in 2011, has taken the court this week in Las Vegas, he’s done a handful of things to make the basketball traditionalist chuckle out loud. The pump fakes are breathtaking, but they have been only one of his many attributes on display. Valanciunas has shown the ability to make jump hooks with both hands, and the footwork necessary to set them up. The touch on his passes and the calm with which he handles double teams are rarely seen in a player with his size and strength. Defensively, he’s maintained a high effort level and diligently committed to finding a body to box to maximize his rebounding opportunities. He’s altered shots and shadowed pick-and-roll ball-handlers. And, it goes without saying, he’s outmuscled and overpowered virtually everyone.
Put simply, Valanciunas is the best player in this year’s summer league, and his development is progressing so well that Raptors coach Dwane Casey didn’t hesitate or hedge when asked to gauge his center’s ceiling.
“I see an All-Star in the making,” Casey told SI.com on Thursday. “He’s not there yet. … I think you’re going to see that [recognition] in the future. As he grows as a player, we’ll grow as a team.”
That prediction was delivered immediately after Valanciunas finished with15 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two blocks in Toronto’s 95-78 win over Denver. Valanciunas took only seven shots but he was the game’s central force, as he has been all week. Through Thursday, Valanciunas ranked third in Las Vegas in scoring (18.8 points) and fifth in rebounding (10.0) while shooting 56.1 percent from the field.