With the game on the line — albeit a meaningless one — and the Toronto Raptors trailing the Detroit Pistons 101-99, Jonas Valanciunas looked on from the bench.
His much-anticipated Raptors debut was over. It had ended early in the third quarter after just over 13 minutes on the floor, two points and two blocked shots.Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey drives on Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas. (AP)
He watched Wednesday as his team tried to orchestrate a game-winning possession in the final moments only to see Jose Calderon draw iron on a three-point attempt that all but ended the game. It's not a position Valanciunas will likely find himself in once games begin to count, and his spot on the bench at this point should come as no surprise.
The 20-year-old Lithuanian missed all of training and the Raptors pre-season opener against Real Madrid due to a calf injury and head coach Dwane Casey wasn't expecting a breakthrough performance from the prized rookie against the Pistons.
"We want to be conservative, it's a long-term process, it's not a playoff game, it's training camp," Casey told the media Wednesday prior to the game. "Get his feet wet. I'm not expecting any miracle showings, we just want to get him out there, get a run in against some of the big guys from Detroit."
The Raptors first-round pick in the 2011 draft (fifth overall) played the entire 2011-2012 season back home in Lithuania and it's expected that he'll be a key piece for Casey as he works to develop the Raptors offence.
Doug Smith said of Valanciunas in his story in the Toronto Star:
Much is expected in the long term from Valanciunas, an athletic 7-footer, former MVP of the European under-20 championships and a member of Lithuania's 2012 London Olympics team.
He's big and quick and more than willing to take the pounding under the basket that comes with being an NBAer, and Casey is anxious to see what he's got in the days ahead.
As debuts go, Valanciunas's was steady.
He had two points, no rebounds, two blocked shots and — most significantly — just one foul. But his impact on the game went beyond raw stats and that will likely be his biggest contribution as the season progresses.
He rolled hard to the basket after setting screens, banged with anyone near him on defence and created space with his offensive moves, allowing the likes of Andrea Bargnani to get more open looks than he normally would.
With the Blue Jays season over and the Maple Leafs and the rest of the NHL in lockout mode, the sporting eyes in Toronto will be on the Raptors and more specifically Valanciunas for at least the early part of the 2012-2013 season.
Not only does he represent a large part of the future for Toronto's basketball franchise, but fans are also hoping he'll erase the ugly memory of Rafael Arujo, the seven-foot Brazilian the Raptors drafted eighth overall in 2004, who turned out to be arguably the worst draft pick in teams history.
But critics are adamant that Valanciunas will have a much more lasting, positive impact. Whether he can help lead the underdog Raptors to the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-2008 season, only time will tell.