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The journey of Lithuania's dominant center
MIES (Switzerland) - The dominating center is historically the most coveted of players. It's why not only Hakeem Olajuwon was drafted first overall by the Houston Rockets in the 1984 NBA Draft, but Sam Bowie was taken second by Portland - AHEAD OF MICHAEL JORDAN!
The center that all teams crave affects games on both ends of the court. He scores, he rebounds, he blocks shots. And if he's not swatting shots, he's affecting them!
It was apparent during Jonas Valanciunas's time with Lithuania's youth teams and early days with the senior national side that he had every chance of blossoming into a dominating center. As things have evolved, Valanciunas has. He will turn 30 next May.
- 'The Evolution of' is a new format where FIBA will break down the journey of active players through their debuts at an early stage in of their careers up until now. Let's check how they performed in Youth Events and let's see how their skillsets and bodies have grown over the years. A fascinating drive down Memory Lane, leading up to great expectations for the future.
Patrolling the paint at U16s and U18s
The 2.11m (6ft 11in) Valanciunas towered over the opposition as a junior for Lithuania, playing in a couple of FIBA U16 European Championships and FIBA U18 European Championships and winning an MVP Award in each competition! When leading his country to U18 glory (above) on home soil in 2010 (a year after scooping the honor of MVP at the U18 All-Star Game in Poland), he had six double-doubles and averaged 19.4 points, 13.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game.
Back then, his size, mobility, energy and soft touch near the basket were more than enough for him to dominate those events.
Tougher competition, tougher play and another MVP
The upward trajectory for Valanciunas continued as he ruled the hardwood in neighboring Latvia at the FIBA U19 World Cup 2011, spearheading Lithuania's run to the title. Valanciunas, who arrived just weeks after being selected with the fifth overall pick in the NBA Draft by Toronto, soared high for alley-oop dunks, had put-back jams and also rebounded and swatted shots with ferocity, ending with tournament-best averages of 23.0 points, 13.9 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per content. His seven double-doubles also ranked No. 1.
In the highlight video above, you can easily notice more upper body bulk, more muscle, more strengh, more power and more agressivity on the court. The rims really complained about Jonas's evolution back then!
If you're good enough, you're old enough
There was such a buzz about Valanciunas that a rap song written and performed by O'Grime with the lyrics "We got stacks like...Jonas Valanciunas!..Gold medals like...Jonas Valanciunas!" was often heard as joined Lithuania's FIBA EuroBasket 2011 team. Though not the finished article in terms of skills and strength, Valanciunas had big moments and big games, including an 18-point, 5-rebound and 2-block performance in a 100-90 win over Serbia (above).
His ability to set very high picks at the center of the court then explode and roll to the basket with great speed and power was already amazing. and a real weapon for the Lithuanian national team.
Two years older, two years wiser
Valanciunas, who played at the London Olympics before embarking on his first season in the NBA with the Toronto Raptors after leaving Lietuvos Rytas, returned to Europe with a more muscle, more facial hair and more aggression. That was evident in his pre-EuroBasket friendly with Finland (above) and during the EuroBasket. He ranked fourth at that summer's EuroBasket in blocked shots while playing 16.5 minutes per game as Lithuania reached the Final.
Now the Main Man
"We're going to go as far as Jonas Valanciunas takes us" might as well have been the rallying cry for Lithuania at the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2014 in Spain because the big fella was twice as impactful as the year before. In more minutes (24.8 minutes per game), his averages shot up to a team-best 14.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game as Lithuania finished fourth.
Jonas started to implement one-on-one moves in the post, efficient hook shots and turnaround jumpers. And his long distance jumper has become threat to be considered for the defenses.
"Just get me the rock!"
It's one thing to get monster doubles in youth tournaments and something else entirely to do so with the senior team at an event like the rough-and-tumble EuroBasket, an event that always has physical play and always delivers as a must-see spectacle. Valanciunas, in one game against Italy, erupted for 26 points and also grabbed 15 rebounds. It was one of four double-doubles in the championship for Big Jonas, who nearly had five but came up a rebound short in the Final against Spain.
Valanciunas officialy entered his prime as a dominant force for Lithuania, physically and technically. The quest for medals has started.
Bulked Up, 25 and Ready to Thrive
At EuroBasket 2017, having spent several years in the NBA, Valanciunas showed more muscle in the upper body and more physicality. As seen above, he ate up a lot of space in the paint at the top tournament on the old continent. His defensive presence and his overall knowledge and understanding of the game were impressive.
Helping Lithuania book spot at World Cup 2019
Valanciunas was a tower of power in the European Qualifiers for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019. He had block parties against both Poland and Hungary.
Nice footwork and short jumpers in China
At the World Cup in China, Valanciunas demonstrated, against elite shot-blocking centers, that he has more to his game than just dunks and layups. Valanciunas showed good footwork and a soft touch against the likes of Rudy Gobert of France. He is now an accomplished offensive force, capable of finding a way to score against any opponent.
Valanciunas a man against boys
The sheer size of the man, along with his great hands, meant that Valanciunas was often the most dominating player the court at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Kaunas last summer. No opponents could combat his size, which he used to good effect by averaging 16 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
In basketball, giant centers like Jonas Valanciunas often have long careers. The Lithuanian star is still searching for gold with his national team after two silver medals at FIBA EuroBasket (2013 and 2015). The next chapters of his journey will be very exciting to witness.
The Evolution of Jonas Valanciunas is not over yet.