Jonas Valanciunas, Lietuvos Rytas

Mar 22, 2012 by Frankie Sachs, Print
Jonas Valanciunas, Lietuvos Rytas
Jonas Valanciunas - Lietuvos Rytas (photo capital of Lithuania has many worthwhile sites to visit, however over the past two years, one of its biggest tourist attractions has been a man. And a young, yet large one at that. Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius center Jonas Valanciunas is poised to be the next big thing in Lithuanian basketball and fans from around the country and beyond have flocked to Siemens Arena – and courts around Europe – for a glimpse of the rising star.

Though just a teenager – Valanciunas does not turn 20 until May – the 2.10-meter center has enjoyed a banner year at both the national team and club levels. He is one of the main reasons Rytas has reached the Eurocup Quarterfinals and looks like a serious threat for the title. Despite being one of the youngest starters and playing just 24 minutes per game in the Eurocup, Valanciunas entered the quarterfinals leading his team in performance index rating (15.9 per game), ranked second in the competition in rebounding (7.8 rpg.) and fourth in blocked shots (1.6 bpg.). And when the games got tougher, so did Valanciunas as he raised his production in every major category in the Last 16 to rank second in the Eurocup in index (19.7)and first in both rebounding (9.3 rpg.) and blocks (1.8 bpg.). And in Game 1 of the quarterfinals: 14 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks and a 23 index!

The fact that Valanciunas is a great athlete should not come as a big surprise; it was after all in his genes. Maybe the surprise is in the sport he eventually chose. His father, Jonas Vilkas, was a rowing champ in the former Soviet Union. (Valanciunas’s parents never married and he was raised by his mother, whose surname he uses.) Despite his father’s success on the water. Valanciunas went in a different direction. "Honestly, I never tried rowing," he told "I will try one day, I don't know when it will be, but I am sure I will give it a try."

The height that helped his father find greatness in rowing was evident in a young Jonas and helped him find his sporting match. "I was tall when I was young. Everybody think that tall guys have to play basketball, so I tried and liked it. I was not really interested in any other sports but basketball."

Valanciunas grew up in the town on Utena (pop. 30,000) in northeaster Lithuania, approximately 100 kilometers from Vilnius. He played for local teams and began to attract national interest within the basketball world. Valanciunas was only 14 years old when he decided it was time to take the sport more seriously. At that time he began training at the Vilnius Basketball School under Coach Gintautas Regina. For Valanciunas, that was the first time he began to realize he had a real future in the game. "You know, I never thought about it. Things had been going good for me from the time I started playing basketball. When I came to Vilnius I realized that I wanted basketball to be my lifestyle."

He was first called to represent his country shortly after his 15th birthday. Valanciunas was not a big contributor for Lithuania’s bronze-medal winning squad at the 2007 European Under-16 Championships in Greece, with just 2.3 points in 8 minutes per game, but that was the last time such a sentence could be uttered. The following year, he simply dominated the same tournament, this time in Italy. Valanciunas averaged 14.3 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game and posted five double-doubles in leading Lithuania to an 8-0 record and the gold medal. He was named MVP of the tournament and received the award from the legendary Dino Meneghin, which marked only the first time Valanciunas would pose with the greats of the game.

That summer Valanciunas decided to take a step up when Lietuvos Rytas came calling with a professional contract. Rytas farmed Valanciunas out to local side Perlas for his first season as a pro. And he did not disappoint, despite being a 16-year-old playing against grown men. He averaged 10.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 16 games in the Lithuanian second division. At the end of the season, Valanciunas got another chance to strut his stuff in front of a big audience. He carried the Lietuvos Rytas junior team to the finals of the Nike International Junior Tournament at the Euroleague Final Four in Berlin. Alas Valanciunas and co. came up short against FMP and Dejan Musli in a memorable final, but not before the big man shined again and earned all-tourney honors with 16.8 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks per game. Valanciunas’s next challenge was to come at the 2009 European U-18 Championships in France. Though he was just 17 – second-youngest on the Lithuanian teams and a year younger than most of the players in the tournament – Valanciunas didn’t just hold his own, he dominated. He was among the tournament leaders in scoring (19.3 ppg.), rebounding (10.3 rpg.) and blocks (2.6 bpg.) in carrying Lithuania to the semifinals. Despite an overall fourth place finish for the team, Valanciunas was named to the all-tournament team.

His never-ending progress continued in the 2009-10 season. After impressing early in the season with Perlas, Valanciunas was called up to Rytas. And to mark his tender age at the time, Valanciunas chose to wear uniform No. 17. Though he wasn’t ready for a major role yet, Valanciunas worked his way into the rotation as Rytas reached the Baltic League title game and won the Lithuanian League title. All the hard work he put in under then-Rytas Coach Rimas Kurtinaitis during the season paid off with another magical summer at the 2010 European U-18 Championships, which this time he got to play in front of friends and family in Lithuania. He registered double-doubles in six of his nine games, highlighted by a 31-point, 18-rebound showing in the final against Russia as Lithuania marched to glory. He finished the tournament with 19.4 points, 13.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game – all among the top three in the tourney – and went home again with MVP honors.

Though Valanciunas had been on many big stages to this point in his career, none was bigger than what came next. Valanciunas and Rytas played the 2010-11 season in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague. And despite playing against the toughest competition yet, he was no slouch. He had a double-double in his debut, was a starter the next week and scored in double figures in four of his first five games. He eventually helped Rytas reach the Top 16 and finished the season with 7.7 points on 70.8% shooting and 5.8 rebounds in just 15 minutes per game! He was fourth in voting for the 2011 Rising Star Trophy award.

Jonas Valanciunas - Lietuvos Rytas (Photo: L. Rytas)Already a huge name on the international circuit, the summer of 2011 would surpass anything Valanciunas had seen yet. It started with the 2011 World U-19 Championships in Latvia, where Valanciunas was unstoppable. He had double doubles in all but two games, averaged 23 points, 13.9 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game and saved the best for last, a 36-point outing against Serbia in the final for his third major title at the junior level. Naturally, his third MVP award accompanied the gold medal. But the summer was still young for Valanciunas. Instead of celebrating, Coach Kestutis Kemzura had other plans as he called the rising star into the senior squad for EuroBasket 2011. And this was not going to be just any EuroBasket for Lithuania; this time it was also the host country. Playing alongside some of the players he had admired for years, Valanciunas produced at an impressive rate. He scored 18 points in 20 minutes in a 90-100 victory over Serbia and 15 in 18 minutes in an 84-75 win over Germany. Despite Lithuania finishing outside the medal hunt, Valanciunas proved to all that he belonged with 8.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game.

"This summer was very special for me," Valanciunas said as he looked back at 2011. "Winning the World Championship was a great moment and I will always remember that. Being able to play with Lithuania at the EuroBasket was a great experience for me too. Last summer was a great one!" At year’s end, all his accomplishments with Rytas and Lithuania were taken into consideration when he was selected by FIBA Europe as the Young Men's Player of the Year for 2011.

Entering this season, it is sometimes easy to forget that Valanciunas is still just a teenager and growing as a man and a player from game to game and month to month. It’s easy to forget because of the dominant performances he has put together. With Valanciunas in the middle, Rytas is still in the running for three important titles – the Eurocup, Baltic League and Lithuanian League. Coach Aleksandar Dzikic has made Valanciunas a central piece in the team’s strategy at both ends and he has responded to every challenge.

"All of the coaches that I have had gave me something that I can use - Kurtinaitis, Anzulovic, Trifunovic... everyone," Valanciunas said. "Now coach Dzikic is helping me a lot… Every coach gave me something valuable and I want to take as much advice as I can. As for teammates, they helped me to become a better player in the last two years and now I want to help the team to win titles because I am honestly thankful to all of them. They are part of my success. All I want is to help them to win trophies."

For Valanciunas, that’s what it’s all about. And his march to win trophies continues next week with a decisive return leg in the Eurocup at BC Donetsk to determine whether or not Valanciunas will play for the 2012 Eurocup crown!