Last week, I checked in on Jonas Valanciunas and the Lithuanian team at the FIBA World Cup through half of round robin play. With JV's role increasing for the national team over the past couple of years, this tournament promised to be an interesting precursor to his similarly expanding role for the Toronto Raptors. To recap, Valanciunas was dominant against inferior opposition in Mexico and Angola, and struggled greatly against his arch nemesis Aron Baynes and Australia. His soft touch and post game were all positives, while his defensive awareness still left something to be desired.
To finish the round robin portion of their draw, Lithuania faced South Korea and Slovenia. After finishing first in their group, the Lithuanians had a tricky match-up in the round of 16 in the Tall Blacks of New Zealand. Here are my game notes on JV's performances in each of the three games.
Lithuania 79 - 49 Korea
JV Stats: 12 pts, 6/7 FGs, 8 rebs, 1 blk, +8. Full boxscore
Valanciunas had his way with a clearly outclassed Korean team, who still came out with a spirited effort in the first quarter and actually take a two point lead after 10 minutes. Although JV only played 22 minutes on the night, he bullied the Koreans in the paint, continuing his efficient work going 6/7 from the field. In the end, it was a fairly routine victory for Lithuania. They were able to spread their minutes out effectively, and got back to their winning ways after slipping up against Australia.
Lithuania 67 - 64 Slovenia
JV Stats: 12 pts, 5/7 FGs, 2 rebs, 2 blks, -10. Full boxscore
The Slovenian team, led by the Dragic brothers, came into this game as the most efficient offensive team in the tournament. Goran Dragic had been absolutely owning the perimeter, while Zoran was giving the Slovenians a Phoenix Suns-esque look as a stretch 4. Although JV again looked good shooting from the field, he was ineffective handling the perimeter assault of the Slovenians. Goran Dragic was routinely penetrating into the post and JV was put in compromising positions due to the spacing on the floor. He only pulled in two rebounds in 17 minutes, and registered a -10 on the night. In the end, Lithuania was lucky that Slovenia was a woeful 6/25 from three-point range and eked out a three point win.
New Zealand 71 - 76 Lithuania
JV Stats: 22 pts, 8/11 FGs, 6/6 FTs, 13 rebs, 3 blks, +10. Full boxscore
I was lucky enough to catch almost this entire game, as it turned out to not only be Valanciunas' finest effort so far this tournament, but one of the best individual efforts over the past couple of weeks. Obviously besting a New Zealand front court that was missing Steven Adams wasn't the stiffest competition, but JV certainly looked impressive dominating the Kiwis. Every time Valanciunas was given a break to rest, New Zealand made a frantic run to make this a tight contest. In the end, the Lithuanian coach realized the size advantage JV brought to the table and leaned on him all through the 4th quarter to close out a surprisingly close affair.
At the end of the game, Coach Kazlauskas was asked about Valanciunas' development and how he has evolved as a player (via Emmet Ryan):
A couple of key quotes from the presser:
He's become stronger, for sure, and much more experienced. There was a time when he'd play like a kid, but now he's learned to have respect for the game and for his opponents, and he understands the price of the game.
Alluding to the sacrifice of JV having to leave home at a young age to ply his trade in the NBA, you can see that Coach Kazlauskas has gained an appreciation for Valanciunas being forced to mature so soon.
After the hilarious backfiring of the Australian tanking efforts to avoid the US, Turkey faced Lithuania after defeating the Boomers in the round of 16.
Lithuania 73 - 61 Turkey
JV Stats: 12 pts, 5/9 FGs, 13 rebs, 1 blk, +6. Full boxscore
Everyone's eyes were on the matchup between Valanciunas and Omer Asik in this game. After JV's feeding frenzy against inferior bigs, the Turks represented his chance to show out against a legitimately very good NBA-calibre defensive centre. Through the first half, Valanciunas and Asik played to an offensive stalemate, with Asik unexpectedly showing better defensively. The Lithuanians stayed a step ahead of the Turkish for most of the game. In the third quarter, Valanciunas expressed some displeasure with the physical play he was faced with and picked up a technical. Although it would've shocked no one if Kazlauskas kept him on the bench for an extended period of time, he showed faith in Valanciunas' ability to rebound mentally and evidently realized his importance to Lithuania's hopes of securing the victory. JV rewarded his coach's faith and had a memorable stretch to close the game. He cleared the glass at will, continued being efficient with his scoring, and even had a beautiful high-low feed to help Lithuania cruise to a comfortable 12 point win.
Up next for Lithuania is the daunting task of dealing with DeMar DeRozan and the United States in the Semifinals. Although Raptors' fans will be looking forward to seeing JV face off against DeMar, I'm personally excited to see JV deal with the challenge of occasionally taking on Anthony Davis. Valanciunas has undoubtedly been very impressive for the majority of this tournament -- he was only really poor in one game (vs. Aron Baynes and Australia).
Thoughts on Valanciunas' development?