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A Wolf Among Wolves

Donatas Motiejunas shines in his summer league debut

LAS VEGAS - Donatas Motiejunas does not lack for confidence. That much is apparent within roughly 2.8 milliseconds of meeting the man in person. He has an immense amount of belief in himself and his skills as a basketball player and sees no reason to run or hide from such self-assurance.

Now Rockets fans know why.

Motiejunas put on a show Friday afternoon during his Las Vegas Summer League debut, lighting up the Raptors to the tune of 25 points (on 11-of-13 shooting no less) and nine rebounds. D-Mo dazzled down low, going blow-for-blow with the Raptors’ bigs while consistently outracing his man down the floor in transition, and even found time to torch Toronto from the perimeter, draining both of the three-pointers that he took.

All told, it was a nearly flawless (save for a 1-of-5 showing from the charity stripe) opening act for the 2011 first round draftee; the type of performance certain to turbo charge the hopes, dreams and expectations of Rockets fans who have wondered from afar about what they should expect from this 21-year-old 7-footer from Lithuania.

“The thing that our fans should be most excited about D-Mo is that he only knows one way,” says Houston’s summer league Head Coach Kelvin Sampson. “He doesn’t have any agendas. All he cares about is the Rockets winning. That’s just the kind of attitude he has.

“You saw what he did out there; his greatest strength is that he doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses. He shoots it pretty good, he passes it pretty good, he runs the floor pretty good – he does a lot of things well.”

It is perhaps the other aspects of Motiejunas’ game, those that do not involve putting the ball in the basket, that offer the most valid reasons to believe D-Mo’s debut was not a case of fool’s gold. Plenty of players from summer leagues’ past have lit up the scoreboard in Vegas only to move on toward a more underwhelming existence once the real games begin in the fall. No NBA player, no matter how great, can count on shooting 11-13 from the field with any sort of consistency. For every rookie -- heck, for every player -- the question always ultimately becomes: what can you do to help your team win when your shot isn’t falling? Sampson says Motiejunas will have no problem answering that query in a way certain to bring a smile to his coaches’ faces.

“He’s a great screener, great roller and he does a great job on defense,” Sampson says. “D-Mo does so many things instinctively. His basketball IQ is outstanding and you could tell that in training camp but you’re not quite sure because you’re stopping and going all the time. But in the flow of things tonight I just saw him do things that you sit there and just smile about. He’s going to help us.”

Of course, none of that will come as a surprise to Motiejunas. He has always believed that he is capable of not just playing but contributing at this level. And why not? He excelled internationally this past season, doing everything the Rockets asked him to do prior to the start of the campaign. He got stronger and proved he’s more than happy to bang bodies down low and clean the glass at a high rate.  He made those strides thanks to a tireless work ethic. When he said he wanted to be a perfect player, that wasn’t just lip service – it was a true expression of his deepest desires as a professional. And he knows only one way of going about the process of making that dream come true: to work and work and work some more. And when that’s finally done: keep working. Little surprise, then, that he would be so well prepared for this experience.

“It’s just basketball,” says Motiejunas with a shrug. “It’s nothing new. This is how I have to play. This is the thing: either they will kick my (butt) or I will kick their (butt). That’s every game and every competition. If you’re scared to be here, then sit on the bench.”

Well this much we can say for certain: Motiejunas is most definitely not scared. In fact, his quote from a few days ago seems particularly apt now. “If you’re scared of wolves, don’t go in the woods, “ he said. Opponents might be wise to take note of that comment themselves. Because for one day at least, Motiejunas proved to be the biggest, baddest wolf on the court.