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Scott Howard-Cooper

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Jonas Valanciunas has been called 'a future franchise center' by one NBA executive.
Rodolfo Molina/EB via Getty Images

Promising big man Valanciunas has contract hurdle to resolve


Posted Jun 21 2011 9:22AM

TREVISO, Italy -- This stopped being just about Jonas Valanciunas, the 2011 Draft and his NBA future years ago, as he began to grow into a lottery-bound center and his potential became nothing less than a matter of national comparisons.

He is big, he is skilled, he is Lithuanian. So he will be next in line, to be judged against the many predecessors from his homeland in what has become a long tradition.

He may follow one of them to lengths that never could have been imagined, depending how the negotiations proceed and Thursday night in Newark, N.J. unfolds. But this could be good.

At the moment, it's mostly complicated.

Before anyone gets to the cutesy angle of Lithuanian center Zydrunas Ilgauskas being replaced in Cleveland by Lithuanian center Valanciunas -- as different as they may be in style of play -- there is the pressing issue of Valanciunas being unable to secure a reasonable buyout that would allow him to play in the NBA next season. Some front offices remain optimistic an agreement will be reached in time to give him a clear path into the top five Thursday. Others are concerned about a Ricky Rubio-type waiting game that could cause one of the obvious talents of the Draft to stay on the board until late in the lottery.

It's a big deal because many scouts and executives feel Valanciunas will have the best career among the five prospects with European backgrounds that are projected to go in the Top 10. And it's an especially big deal because he is a center in a Draft that has precious few.

The Cleveland thing is just a nice touch. But what a fun twist it would be if Valanciunas were chosen to replace countryman Ilgauskas, the resilient, classy and very popular ex-Cavalier who played nearly 12 seasons in Cleveland before leaving as a free agent last summer. They could even call him "Big V."

If the buyout is resolved, the No. 4 pick (the second of the night for the Cavs if they take point guard Kyrie Irving No. 1 overall, as is expected) is right in Valanciunas territory. Without the buyout in place, chances are greatly diminished but not impossible, if management feels he is worth the wait.

It wouldn't be hard for the Cavs to spin the temporary setback into a positive. Not wanting to bring three rookies -- if you include Cleveland's second-round pick at No. 32 -- onto the roster is one side of it. On the other side is the notion to draft a talented center any time there's one available.

"A future franchise center," is how one competing executive described Valanciunas. "If you've got two picks in the top four, that's exactly what you roll the dice on. Especially in that community, with the history with Ilgauskas."

Being linked is nothing new. The comparisons are practically routine in Lithuania -- Valanciunas to 2011 Hall of Fame inductee Arvydas Sabonis, Valanciunas to former Spurs draftee Robertas Javtokas, Valanciunas to Ilgauskas, Valanciunas to both Lavrinovic twins, talents who had off-court troubles before making it big. (That doesn't even count the nation's other, shorter basketball successes who joined the NBA, most notably the great ambassador Sarunas Marciulionis and Linas Kleiza, and now power forward Donatas Motiejunas, who could be a potential lottery pick on Thursday.)

So, the Cavaliers?

Yeah, that'd work.

"I see that like one of opportunity," Valanciunas said last week at the adidas Eurocamp. "Ilgauskas liked Cleveland, Cleveland liked his play. I like this opportunity."

Valanciunas' play most resembles Javtokas because of the reliance on the inside game, whereas Ilgauskas and the Lavrinovic brothers could stretch the floor with their perimeter games. Sabonis was an overgrown point guard the way he could pass and shoot threes. It works out nicely, then, that Valanciunas' favorite player growing up was Javtokas. In later years, it has become Dwight Howard.

Now, Valanciunas is days away from the NBA, even if his actual debut is very much TBA. He will be judged against other picks from the 2011 Draft and others through many years in Lithuania, because this long ago stopped being just about him.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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