Jonas Valanciunas – Lithuania
This marks the eighth consecutive summer in which Valanciunas has suited up for the Lithuanian senior team and the 12th summer in a row overall in which he’s played for his country, a remarkable streak. He spends the bulk of his offseason training at home in Lithuania, anyway, but it’s still cool to see him go out and represent his country in games that don’t matter a whole lot in the grand scheme – Lithuania went 4-0 in their in-season qualification games and had Group C in the European qualification bracket largely locked up already. Records carry over to the next qualification round, though, and Valanciunas once again answered the call for Lithuania, turning in two solid games
Lithuania d. Poland, 79-61
Valanciunas was able to flash some new skills off in this one, dishing three assists and blocking three shots in just 24 minutes. Those are areas the Raptors will be looking for continued improvement from the 7-footer in, particularly the playmaking, and it’s encouraging that he was able to turn the tremendous attention he commands into assists, considering how poor the guard play around the Lithuanian bigs is (though they were surprisingly 7-of-16 on threes in this game, normally a huge issue for the program). Valanciunas also did his usual Valanciunas things, picking up 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting, grabbing seven rebounds, and posting a plus-10. Domantas Sabonis led the way with 17 points and a plus-11 in 22 minutes.
Lithuania d. Hungary, 73-50
The big news here was Valanciunas unleashing a 3-point attempt from the top of the arc in the game’s opening moments. That’s old hat for Raptors fans at this point, but it was the first time he’d ever attempted a three in a FIBA senior men’s event, so it’s notable that he now has something of a green light with the national program. Missing it made it no less fun. Insider the arc, Valanciunas was just too much for the Hungarian defenders, and there were a couple of second-quarter plays where defenders just kind of bounced off of him in the post. He did run into a bit of trouble with a pair of early fouls and a pair of early turnovers, but it mattered little as Lithuania began a slow pull-away across the second and third quarters. Valanciunas would only be needed for 16 minutes in this one, scoring an efficient 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting with five rebounds, two blocks, and a plus-6 mark in his cameo.
Lithuania makes it on to the next round of European qualifying, finishing atop Group C at a perfect 6-0 with a whopping +160 point differential. They’ll now move on to a six-team Group J to play six more games (with records carrying over), with the top three teams from that group qualifying for the 2019 World Cup. Lithuania will enter Group J in command of the table, as every other team has already lost at least two games and is at least 90 points behind in differential.
Jakob Poeltl – Austria
It was a much bigger deal for Poeltl to be able to suit up for Austria, as they were in desperate need of victories. Poeltl is also the only NBA player in Austrian basketball history, so the opportunity for him to play for the senior team for the first time in really meaningful games – he appeared in four pre-qualifiers last summer, averaging 20 points in 25 minutes on 69-percent shooting, important games but in an environment where their barrier to move on was quite low – is a big one. Austria went winless in their four in-season qualifiers without Poeltl, and they would have to at least beat Georgia and likely go 2-0 to make it to the next round of qualification.
Germany d. Austria, 85-63
Poeltl got into early foul trouble that seemed to take him off of his game, picking up two almost immediately and then a third late in the first half as Austria fell behind 14. He bounced back with a very strong third quarter, scoring seven points to momentarily bring Austria back within single-digits, only for Germany to pull back ahead. In the end, the talent gap was just too extreme – Austria really doesn’t have a lot of talent around Poeltl, although they did do a nice job of taking care of the glass around Poeltl’s modest presence there – and even a fine final line for the Raptors center had Austria on the wrong end of a 22-point defeat. Poeltl finished with 11 points, three rebounds, a block, and a -10 mark in 21 minutes. It was a disappointing first outing given how dominant Poeltl normally is for Austria in these events, but Germany is good and the quick whistle clearly took him off his game a bit.
Georgia d. Austria, 98-73
Poeltl sat this game out due to an infection in his foot, according to a statement from the team doctor on the Basketball Austria website. Poeltl himself took to Facebook, writing “Unfortunately I won’t be able to play tonight against Georgia because of an infection. I will support the Austrian national team from the bench. #JP42.” There is no immediate timetable for a return to play or any specific details on the infection. As has been the case throughout qualifiers, Austria just doesn’t have the pieces to compete without Poeltl, and Georgia cruised to the victory here. It sucks that Poeltl is dealing with a foot issue, but at least he didn’t get in a brawl and throw a Kinshasa, right?
Austria finishes the first round of qualifiers at 0-6, so they’re done here. With their elimination from World Cup qualification, Austria will next play in EuroBasket 2021 pre-qualifiers, jumping right into the second round of those at a date still to be determined.