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Scott Howard-Cooper

Jonas Valanciunas was Toronto's first-round pick, No. 5 overall, in the 2011 Draft.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Waiting game pays off for Raptors and '11 pick Valanciunas

Posted Jul 6 2012 10:32AM

The Toronto Raptors have survived the test of patience and won the waiting game. They chose center Jonas Valanciunas fifth overall in the June 2011 NBA Draft, knowing he would spend another season in his native Lithuania, felt the barrage of criticism as they limped toward a 23-43 finish in 2011-12 with no lottery pick to provide hope for the future, and now have the payback.

If Valanciunas would have been picked in the 2012 Draft last week, after playing the season with Lietuvos Rytas in Lithuania?

"I'd say he goes 2," one general manager said recently. "If he's in the Draft based on his body of work over the last 12 months, then I think he goes 2."

"I think No. 2," another executive said. "He was 5 last year, and you could say this is a stronger Draft class (in 2012). But considering his size and how hard he plays, and that he's been playing professional basketball another year, it certainly wouldn't be any lower than he was last year."

"Second or third," said a personnel veteran. "He didn't get any worse, that's for sure. He's really good."

Good enough that Valanciunas at No. 5 in 2011 is going to turn out to be an excellent investment, even if he didn't play in the NBA at all last year?

"Absolutely," the third executive said.

It almost didn't happen for Toronto. The Cavaliers should have taken Valanciunas with the fourth choice. They needed a center and had already lucked into the No. 1 pick by virtue of a trade with the Clippers that turned gold when L.A.'s selection won the lottery. The Cavs took Kyrie Irving, the eventual Rookie of the Year, so the miss on Valanciunas was much more palatable. Even though he would have been a Lithuanian center in a city where a Lithuanian center, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, was one of the popular athletes of his generation in any sport.

Cleveland passing on Valanciunas in favor of power forward Tristan Thompson started a chain reaction that only last week became clear. The Cavaliers couldn't go power forward again in 2012, also at No. 4, so they passed on Thomas Robinson to take Dion Waiters. Maybe Waiters and the potential of a high-scoring guard would have been the choice no matter what. Either way, the Cavs had to circle back later in the first round, trading picks 24, 33 and 34 to the Mavericks for a center at No. 17, Tyler Zeller. Valanciunas, Irving and Waiters or Robinson hold much more promise than Irving, Thompson, Waiters and Zeller.

Toronto made the investment instead, the kind of long-term plotting that general manager Bryan Colangelo had in mind when he said in February that, "I think most (people in Toronto) get it. But there is a vocal minority that are not happy with where we are as a team. I'm actually quite comfortable with where we are as a team because I see the future. It's hard to explain in the short term and it's very difficult to go through because losing is terrible. But I see the future, let's put it that way."

The positive reviews for Valanciunas help as the Raptors -- all Toronto, really -- absorb the body blow of being turned down in free agency by Canadian hero Steve Nash. On Thursday, the Raptors bounced back by agreeing to acquire point guard Kyle Lowry from the Rockets. Going through a second consecutive summer league without their center of the future -- this time as he remains with the Lithuanian national team in preparation for the Olympics -- does nothing to diminish the new hope.

Waiting has paid off for other teams, too. Combo forward Nikola Mirotic, who went 23rd in 2011, officially chosen by the Rockets before landing in Chicago, has likewise appreciated in value after spending last season in Spain. If he was in the 2012 draft?

"Maybe back end of the lottery," one executive said in a common opinion.

Said one personnel boss, particularly impressed with Mirotic's trajectory: "Eight to 12."

Donatas Motiejunas, meanwhile, probably maintained his 2011 standing. He went 20th then, taken by the Timberwolves and quickly moved to the Rockets, and likely would have been taken somewhere close to that last week, executives say.

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

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