Long on Talent

Contract, readiness questions put Valanciunas on Pistons radar

Despite surrounding uncertainties, Jonas Valanciunas remains a legitimate option for the Pistons should he be available at pick No. 8.
Photo courtesy of Google.com
Editor’s note: Pistons.com continues a 15-part series leading to the June 23 draft with a look at one of the possibilities for their pick at No. 8 in the first round, Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas. Next: Bismack Biyombo.

He probably isn’t ready to shoulder a significant role next season and there’s no guarantee his contract will allow him to join the NBA team that drafts Jonas Valanciunas. But any team that takes another center or power forward ahead of him will do so harboring some belief that Valanciunas could turn out to be the top big man in the 2011 draft.

Just turning 19 a month ago, Valanciunas has size, athleticism and tenacity in abundance. The full package was on display last summer, when he led his native Lithuanian national team to the Under-18 European title, averaging 19.4 points, 13.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocked shots while shooting 70 percent.

While a narrow consensus of NBA scouts might lean to Turkey’s Enes Kanter as the top big man in the draft, it would surprise few if Valanciunas eventually becomes the better player. Kanter, who weighed in at a solid 259 pounds at the NBA draft combine in Chicago last month, is more physically mature and probably more ready to contribute next season.

But if Valanciunas’ self-reported 7-foot-6 wing span proves accurate, his impact at the defensive end could allow him to exceed Kanter’s level of contributions – eventually. At around 240 wiry pounds, he should be expected to face an adjustment period while guarding legitimate NBA post scorers. In the Euroleague – Valanciunas’ Lithuanian pro team, Rytas, plays at Europe’s highest level – he frequently picked up quick fouls from aggressive play in an attempt to compensate for a lack of strength.

Where Valanciunas will wind up going is anybody’s guess. There are rumblings that Utah likes him at No. 3. The Jazz are fairly well positioned in their frontcourt – Derrick Favors, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mehmet Okur and pending free agent Kyrylo Fesenko – but the chance to pair the athletic Favors with a young 7-footer could set them up for the next decade.

More on Jonas Valanciunas
Country: Lithuania

Size: 6-foot-11, 240 pounds

Age: 19 on draft night

The good: Valanciunas’ self-reported 7-foot-6 wing span would make him one of the NBA’s longest players and, potentially, a major defensive force. … Plays hard, runs well and has good hands. … Competed in the Euroleague and held his own.

The bad: Valanciunas isn’t as physically mature as several other big men the Pistons could find available with the No. 8 pick; needs to add weight and strength. … Contract situation with Lithuanian pro team could give teams high in the lottery pause.

The skinny: Will Valanciunas last to No. 8? That is one of the biggest uncertainties of a draft filled with them. The combination of readiness and contract gives it a chance to happen. Could the Pistons afford to be patient with a player who might have the highest ceiling of anyone in the draft?

Cleveland is a strong possibility at No. 4, as are Toronto and Washington at 5 and 6, though all three could have a preference for a different specific player that would allow Valanciunas to fall to No. 8. If he slides past Washington, then chances are he would be available to the Pistons, barring a trade; Sacramento, which holds the seventh pick, is unlikely to draft a pure center one year after selecting DeMarcus Cousins.

ESPN.com’s Chad Ford, in his third mock draft, had Valanciunas being selected by the Pistons.

The combination of the likely wait for Valanciunas to contribute coupled with the contract uncertainty might be just enough to dissuade teams high in the lottery from spending their pick on him. But the contract buyout with Rytas seems manageable, according to the most reliable sources on the matter.

The most important element of Valanciunas’ contract situation is that the player has been consistent in expressing his desire to play in the NBA. Once that is established, the rest can be worked out. Another European player who would be considered a potential top-10 pick, Nikola Mirotic, has made it known he’s happy in Europe – making him a likely candidate to pull out of this draft – and NBA teams are wary of another situation like Orlando faces in dealing with its 2005 lottery pick, Fran Vazquez, who is still playing in Europe.

That doesn’t appear likely with Valanciunas. And in a draft that many believe has very little in the way of sure things, gambling on a player with Valanciunas’ upside would appear a more prudent bit of risk-taking than it might in other drafts.

How would Valanciunas fit a Pistons team that must consider last year’s rookie gem, Greg Monroe, in every key decision?

The Pistons are convinced Monroe, because of his basketball IQ and versatility, can adapt to play with either a pure power forward or a pure center. Valanciunas’ demonstrated shot-blocking skills, nose for the ball and talents as an offensive rebounder would combine with Monroe’s skills package to give the Pistons a potentially dynamic 1-2 interior punch.

Valanciunas isn’t yet a post scoring threat, but he appears to have the skills – starting with a pair of hands scouts universally describe as “soft,” plus good footwork – to eventually become one. He runs very well for his size, especially at an age where he’s still growing into his body, and is a willing battler under the boards. He has impressed observers with his knack for scoring in pick-and-roll situations as well as cleaning up around the rim, a testament to what scouts see as the ability to quickly get off of his feet to chase rebounds.

He appears to have a genuine love of the game and the toughness and competitive instincts to reach whatever his potential might be. It’s probably less than 50-50 that Valanciunas slides to the Pistons and it wouldn’t be a no-brainer that they would take him. But the thought of a Monroe-Valanciunas pairing would be a tantalizing temptation for a team still struggling to replicate the dominant frontcourt days of Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace and Antonio McDyess.