"Is it so bad?"
Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas got defensive last Friday when asked if he would take English classes this coming season to prepare for his arrival to Toronto. Not a surprising reaction after the heat he took following his post-draft interview.
Just as his English, Valanciunas' game is a work in progress. But at this point, the latter is way more advanced. Valanciunas comes off a terrific performance at the World Junior Championship, where he led the Lithuanian National Team to the gold medal and finished as the top scorer, rebounder and shot blocker in the tournament.
It was a dominant display that came just weeks after the Raptors made him the No. 5 choice in the 2011 draft. There was some dismay among Toronto fans about using a high pick on a player that, due to contract issues with his club Lietuvos Rytas, would not make it to the NBA until the 2012-13 season – more so considering the team's track record of drafting disappointing international big men. Aleksandar Radojevic and Rafael Araujo, both lottery selections, turned out to be busts in the league and Andrea Bargnani has never lived up to the expectations of a No. 1 pick.
But Valanciunas' outing at the Junior Championship has made some doubters believers. Lithuania will host the Eurobasket next month and a lot of attention will be put on his play at the tournament – assuming he's there.
"First I have to make the team," said the humble Valanciunas, who's actually a virtual lock to be at the European Championship.
That humility is one of the traits that has made Valanciunas, who's just 19, so successful to this point, according to Darius Maskoliunas, his head coach at Lietuvos Rytas last season.
"He works hard in practice and never talks back," Maskoliunas said. "He's 100 percent concentrated. It was a pleasure to work with him.
"I first saw him four years ago and in that time you had the feeling that this guy could do something special. He was skinny, but from a young age you could tell he was an intelligent player. You didn't have the feeling that you were watching a star, but he worked hard and every year he improved something."
The 6-foot-11 Valanciunas could use the extra season in Lietuvos Rytas, a Euroleague team, to get stronger, thus becoming a bigger presence in the low post, and work on refining his mid-range shooting. With that, his game will look even more like that of a familiar player in Toronto.
"I see him as a Chris Bosh type," Maskoliunas said. "He can play back to the basket, facing the basket... He has to take that mid-range shot. He can shoot it. But he can run, he can rebound, he even has a three-point shot."
Although some analysts consider him a potential star in the league, Valanciunas doesn't want to hear none of it. Actually, he didn't see himself as a future NBA player till last season.
"(It was then) that I realized I could make it into the NBA," Valanciunas said. "The scouts came to watch my games and spoke with me. That's when I realized I could make it."
A lot can happen in the future, but Valanciunas' recent play is making Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo, who's under pressure to deliver results, look pretty good right now. Another positive note is that Valanciunas, unlike other players, is really looking forward to playing in Canada.
"Toronto is an international city with a lot of Lithuanians," he said. "After the draft, a lot of Lithuanians wrote me on Facebook telling me that if I need any help, just get back at them. I'm really happy by the chance of playing in Toronto."