Rookie center Jonas Valanciunas was named the NBA Eastern Conference’s rookie of the month for March, according to the Toronto Star, and he certainly deserves it given his improvement and impressive play this season.
The 20-year-old big man averaged 15.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and a field goal percentage of .605 in 33.7 minutes for the last 10 games.
These statistics are a clear improvement upon those for 2012-13.
His season averages are 8.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and a field goal percentage of .552 in 23.7 minutes of game play. Evidently, the extra time on the court has allowed Valanciunas to blossom into a force on the low-post.
Valanciunas handled the Timberwolves’ Nikoka Pekovic well last Friday, grabbing 12 points and helping the Raptors to a 95-93 win over Minnesota. The center also impressed on Wednesday when the Raptors defeated the Washington Wizards, totaling 24 points and 10 rebounds in 41 minutes.
The rookie said of his first year in the NBA, “It was my first season away from home and that was tough because the NBA is a lot of travel, a busy schedule, a game every other day … but I’m happy to be here and it was the best year of my career.”
Valanciunas is from Lithuania.
The 7-foot Raptor might be catching the attention of the entire league, but more importantly, he is gaining praise from his coach, Dwane Casey. Toronto’s coach said of Valanciunas’s play against the Timberwolves, “You’re giving up 70 pounds and … I was proud the way [Valanciunas] battled and went at [Pekovic] and didn’t back away from it. A lot of guys would have run from that contact but he didn’t.”
Casey also commended Valanciunas for his positive attitude: “He’s ... :great kid and that’s what makes him such a joy to work with. He’s a positive guy and that’s what you want your organization to be about, a guy who is positive, upbeat.”
He expanded: “This league is about frustration, there’s always something that’s going to be happening in this league that you can gravitate to on the negative side and he gravitates to the positive and that’s why he’s going to be a longtime NBA player.”
Valanciunas said modestly of his improvement: “I don’t know, I’m just doing my stuff, trying to help the team to win, trying to defend, trying to score, trying to be active. Do what I can do.”
The center added: “I feel more trust from the coach, from teammates. They’re passing me the ball down in the low post and it’s good to know they trust me and they can go to me, draw a set for me.”
Such trust results in more minutes and more opportunities to handle the ball and score points. As a rookie, Valanciunas is gaining the exposure to the game that will enable him to develop into a steady force in the NBA.
Undoubtedly, Valanciunas will be a valuable asset to the Toronto Raptors.
At age 20, he is their youngest player, and he’s the only center besides Aaron Gray. This season, Valanciunas has proved himself vital to the Raptors' low-post since power forward Andrea Bargnani was sidelined for the season with a right elbow injury nearly a month ago.
Provided Bargnani returns healthy and powerful next season, he and Valanciunas will make a strong team down low for Toronto. Valanciunas gets an A for effort and an A for improvement.