When Jonas Valanciunas was introduced as a part of the starting lineup in his first NBA game, the crowd members at the sold-out Air Canada Centre rose to their feet and applauded. It was a warm reception, but it was not the type of welcome that he’ll see in a couple years on opening night. In fact, it won’t be as loud as his welcome next year on opening night, and I’d even be willing to bet it won’t be as loud as his introductions will be halfway through this season.
Toronto Raptors fans, not unlike the rest of Toronto, have been out of love for a long time. Save for the 13-25 year old female demographic of Toronto who adore Toronto Blue Jays’ Brett Lawrie and J.P. Arencibia, there has not been a player that Toronto fans can get overly excited about in some time.
But all that is about to change. Let the love affair with Jonas Valanciunas begin.
In his first regular season NBA game, Valanciunas posted a modest 12 points, 10 rebounds and even recorded his first block. Granted, this is not a stat line that makes the casual fan take notice and immediately try to trade for him in a fantasy basketball league. Yet for a team that has long struggled to find a solid center, it is more than acceptable: it is a glimmer of hope.
Valanciunas brings an improved defensive presence that has been missing from the Raptors frontcourt for some time. He uses his 7-foot frame to his advantage and according to Raptors head coach Dwayne Casey, “he hits first and asks questions later.”
If that is not a way to win the affection of hockey-crazed Toronto, then I don’t know what is.
Could this finally be the long sought after center? Jermaine O’Neal was not the answer. Rasho Nesterovic was not the answer. Jamaal Magloire and Solomon Alabi certainly were not the answer. Maybe Valanciunas is.
In Wednesday’s loss to the Pacers, DeMar DeRozan drove hard to the basket and was fouled near the baseline. The offending Pacer offered a hand to help DeRozan up. But Valanciunas ran in from the free throw line, pushed everyone out of the way and helped him up, as if to say, this is my teammate, and it is my job to support him. Valanciunas showed a passion for the game and his teammates that will endear him to his fans.
At just 20 years old and in his first NBA game, it appears that he understands what it takes to win in the NBA and how to be a good teammate, but sometimes highly praised rookies let it go to their head. How can we be sure that won’t happen?
Well, we can’t, but Valanciunas has offered a relieving message to Toronto: "I'm not trying to be like a famous player, or the most liked by fans. I'm doing my things. If fans like that, that's great, I like to talk with the fans, I need support from the fans.”
Jonas, if doing your thing is recording double doubles, playing hard defense, being a great teammate and staying down to earth, I think you’ll do just fine in this league.
Toronto, let the love affair begin.