Jonas Valanciunas can't wait to finally hit the court with the Raptors

Raptors forced to delay debut of Valanciunas

Team officials expect season of growth, adaptation

Jonas Valanciunas lay on the court early in the second half and stared at the ceiling of the Basketball Arena in London, a trail of sweat marking his slide along the baseline, his hands clutching his throat as if he were choking.

It was the end of the seven-footer’s night, the victim of a simultaneous — though inadvertent — elbow to the neck and knee to the groin by Kobe Bryant, another setback in a much-scrutinized Olympic debut for the Raptor prospect.

Now he’s facing another.

Impatient Toronto fans have already waited a year now for the seven-footer’s post presence, and after he suffered a calf strain working out with the team prior to training camp, they’ll have to wait a little longer.

“Obviously we’re still not putting any timetable on anything here, but I think we’ve witnessed here this week that he’s progressed,” said Alex McKechnie, the Raptors director of sports science, while at camp in Halifax.

“You see him progressing, today for example he did a lot of reactive drills and it’s about getting endurance back and getting back in shape so that we can get him back into the mix.”

Head coach Dwane Casey says there is no timetable.

“We’re not going to rush him back. Whenever he’s ready, they’ll let us know.”

When Valanciunas finally hits the court, the wait won’t be over necessarily as hype exceeds ability for the time being.

As McKechnie said, it will likely take three or four years before the young Lithuanian is comfortable enough to excel in the NBA and begins to meet his considerable potential.

“I’m working to get back as soon as possible [this week] I hope so,” an anxious Valanciunas said in Halifax.

“This year is my first year in the NBA and I’m really excited to be here and see what I can do in this league.”

For now, it’s wait and see.

The only real opportunity for local fans to see their prized prospect was in London, where he earned little court time for Lithuania on a team dominated by veterans.

Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo sees Valanciunas’ impact on the Games as an indication of what to expect early on, another example of the ‘wait-and-see’ approach Toronto is taking with the 20-year-old.

“I had a chance to see him play multiple games and he did pick up some quick fouls which put him in a tough situation as far as being able to get back on the court,” said Colangelo, at training camp in Halifax.

“The coach would insert a veteran player and feel a little bit more comfortable.

“The bottom line is, you saw what he was capable of doing in spurts [he played the tenth most minutes on the team] … it was energy, it was hustle, it was making plays when he needed to, it was knocking down free throws, a very good trait for a big man of his capabilities.

“But you can’t look at that one little bit and say that’s who he is as a player.”

Olympic averages of 4.2 points and four rebounds, three total blocks, not a single assist, and 13 fouls in 69 minutes of play aren’t numbers that will jump off the stat sheet, but Colangelo reinforces the patient approach.

“I look at the whole body of work and I know that as a 20-year-old to have the kind of energy, the kind of enthusiasm and personality as a seven-footer, it’s a tough package to find, but we found it and we think some good things are going to come of it.”

Fellow countryman and Raptor teammate Linas Kleiza notched a team-high 25 points in that unexpectedly close 99-94 loss to a stacked American squad. He’ll play the role of mentor this season as Valanciunas adjusts to life in the NBA.

“He had a great summer this summer, but this summer was a little different for him because everybody put very high expectations on him and everybody expected him to be that guy right away and he just wasn’t 100 per cent ready to do that,” Kleiza said at Raptors media day at the ACC.

“But the sky is the limit for him.

“He has everything he needs and I think he’ll be one of the top centres in the NBA in three or four years … He’s got the tools, the physical ability, the offensive talent, it’s just going to take some time.”

The Raptor rookie comes from a basketball-crazed country, whose 1992 bronze medal is still a source of national pride.

Valanciunas has experienced Lithuania’s love of the game first-hand, though he doesn’t remember the 1992 games, he was just two-and-a-half months old.

Due to the lockout-shortened season, the fifth overall pick in 2011 was stashed overseas for a year in his comfort zone, playing for his hometown Lietuvos Rytas, the team he grew up rooting for as the tallest kid in his class who chose basketball over dance.