Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas holds his own after 'being thrown to the wolves' in NBA debut
By STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency
|Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas puts up a shot over Pacers centre Roy Hibbert at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont., Oct. 31, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters)
TORONTO - With 1:21 left in the second quarter in Wednesday’s season opener against the Indiana Pacers, Raptors’ rookie Jonas Valanciunas trudged off the court after being replaced by veteran Aaron Gray, his head down, his body language decidedly downcast.
Not something coach Dwane Casey really wanted to see.
“Come on, move it!” Casey shouted at the rook.
Valanciunas hustled to the bench.
That was the low point of Valanciunas’ NBA debut.
There were many more high points.
Matched up at centre against Roy Hibbert — one of the strongest, most skilled big men in the NBA — Valanciunas more than held his own, recording a double-double in his first-ever regular-season NBA game with 12 points, 10 rebounds and one block in 23 minutes — only the second Raptors rookie ever to perform that feat, Damon Stoudamire being the first back in 1995. Hibbert finished with 14 points, nine rebounds, three assists and five blocks.
Casey described the match-up as “being thrown to the wolves”.
Hibbert is certainly an alpha male. The frontcourt battle between the two was as intense as Raptors fans have seen in some time. At times, Hibbert’s two-inch and (at least) 20-pound advantage wore the Toronto rookie down, as was the case when Casey replaced him with the veteran Gray late in the second quarter.
But the 7-foot, 257-pound Valanciunas refused to back down and won some of the battles as the game progressed. He hustled, he battled and he demonstrated a nice touch and a court presence, though he did make a few mistakes on defence.
“The first half (was) a learning experience for him, Hibbert had his way a little bit,” Casey said. “But he made adjustments, made Hibbert work the second half, did an excellent job against him. I was proud of the way he played. If he can give us that and continue to improve ... making adjustments, making the passes, defensive presence in the paint, his rebounds in traffic are exactly what we need.”
One game is one game, but the Raptors have to be over the moon from what they’ve seen of their 2011 first-round pick so far. Nobody really expected Valanciunas to win the starting centre job ahead of Amir Johnson, but he played well enough during the pre-season for Casey to give him the nod. And if Wednesday’s debut is any indication, he may have the starting centre job for a long time.
Valanciunas’ performance was tempered somewhat by the two-point loss against the Pacers, George Hill nailing a driving hook shot with two seconds left for the 90-88 Pacers win. Afterwards, the personable rookie seemed to be caught off guard when asked about his performance.
“I did double-double?” he said, when asked about his 12 points and 10 boards. “Great. But it’s important that our team win. Today team lose, so was not enough, double double. Maybe I need to have a triple-double.”
Casey’s main worry heading into the game was whether the rookie would be able to avoid early foul trouble, which he did. He stayed on the floor in the first quarter until picking up his second foul with 3:03 left in the quarter, when he was replaced by Johnson.
“There’s mistakes that you make where you lose points on, or mistakes that you make that you can just hold serve. As long as he’s not hurting us — and he hasn’t done that in practice or exhibition games — we’ve got to let him get his minutes,” said the coach. “And the only thing that will probably give him a quick (hook) is quick fouls.”
Casey predicted earlier in the week that Valanciunas would become a big crowd favorite at the ACC, because of his skill and his “hard-hat” style of play.
That looks like a real possibility.