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Scott Howard-Cooper

Jonas Valanciunas, the No. 5 pick in the 2011 Draft, is the key to Toronto's rebuilding plan.
Ray Amati/NBAE via Getty Images

Rubio's success gives Raptors' fans hope for Valanciunas

Posted Mar 13 2012 3:43PM

The torn knee ligament changes nothing. Ricky Rubio remains a league-wide highlight despite the sudden end to his 2011-12 season. He is a newcomer who went beyond expectations amid the hype that accompanied his long-awaited arrival, a point guard of great composure and court vision despite his lack of NBA experience.

And his success remains an example for the Raptors and their suffering fans.

Rubio and new coach Rick Adelman joined Kevin Love to instantly turn the lottery regulars into a playoff threat, along the way infusing the Twin Cities with a layer of basketball passion not felt since the days of Kevin Garnett. (Not counting the ultimate passion: raising money to buy J.R. Rider a one-way plane ticket out of town.)

Rubio showed that a delayed arrival from Draft (2009) until NBA debut (2011) can deliver a huge payoff. The Raptors have asked for the same patience with Jonas Valanciunas as fans suffer through 13-28 in the post-Chris Bosh construction efforts.

Valanciunas is somewhere in the distance. Rubio is proof that this can work out.

Valanciunas was an investment pick at No. 5, saddled with a straightjacket of a contract in his native Lithuania that had no buyout provision. Only after the Draft -- after the Cavaliers used the first selection on Kyrie Irving, the Timberwolves took Derrick Williams, the Jazz chose Enes Kanter and the Cavs came back with Tristan Thompson -- was agreement reached on a new deal that included a $2.4 million buyout.

Every indication is that he will be a Raptor coached by Dwane Casey next season, after a 2011-12 season during which he is improving his strength and shooting with Lietuvos Rytas. His team is coached by Aleksandar Dzikic, by coincidence a former Casey assistant with the Timberwolves. And Valanciunas figures to have a successful career -- "a future franchise center," one non-Toronto executive predicted before the Draft.

"I have no doubt that is the right pick or was the right pick for us," said Bryan Colangelo, the president and general manager. "But it certainly wasn't one that would gather instant gratification. There were other players on the board ... that our fans and perhaps the media wanted us to take because they might come in and be an immediate-impact pick, if you will. But we made a long-term decision. We drafted a 19-year-old center prospect and despite the pressure of picking a so-called sexy pick or someone that might be a more-popular pick, we made the pick that we felt was the best decision, long term and short term, for the franchise because it fit right into this building process that we're going through right now."

It's the pick the Cavaliers should have made at No. 4, instead of power forward Tristan Thompson. They would have had, as it turned out, Irving streaking to Rookie of the Year in 2011-12 and an additional substantial pay out later in Valanciunas.

Instead, the Raptors gladly stepped into the Valanciunas predicament, willing to trade what at the time most teams expected would be a one-season holding pattern for eight or 10 seasons of standout center play. Colangelo just doesn't like the Rubio analogy.

But it's true. Even in an abbreviated rookie season, Rubio showed that patience can be worth it.

"I don't like to make comparisons like that," Colangelo said. "Clearly the situation is one that you've drafted a young player, he's playing professional basketball somewhere else, it's not at the NBA level but he is continuing the process of growing and maturing as an individual and as a basketball player.

"He's playing minutes. I think all of that was favorable in Ricky's situation. Ricky probably got to the point where it was counter-productive because that last year in Spain he was really, if anything, going the opposite direction. It's almost like there was a disinterest, if you will, or he had a lot less impact. I'm sure that extra time in Europe was beneficial for him, but in his case, maybe it lasted just one season too long."

That, the Raptors hope, will not be the case for the improving Valanciunas. When he finally makes it to the NBA, he'll be ready. And Toronto will be ready for him.

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

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