Jonas Valanciunas stood out on the court because of his imposing size, tenacity on the boards, good hands and deft shooting touch.
The Raptors will miss all of those things, now that the 7-foot Lithuanian has been dealt to the Memphis Grizzlies along with C.J. Miles, Delon Wright and a second-round draft pick in exchange for Marc Gasol.
They’ll miss what he brought off of the court, too.
His humility, sense of humour, work ethic and positivity went a long way when it came to team chemistry.
From the day he joined the organization as a rail-thin 20-year-old, the affable big man belied his status as one of the most famous people in his homeland. A relatable 7-foot star prospect? That was Valanciunas, who mixed Borat voices and sayings with off-colour humour as his English came along to great effect. Even once he became fluent, the Borat impressions would still be broken out on occasion.
A class clown at times, but all business once he hit the court, as he proved time and time again in the playoffs when his higher-profile teammates didn’t always join him in elevating their games.
Valanciunas arrived in Canada with much of Toronto’s fan-base unhappy with his selection by Bryan Colangelo. Most wanted guards Kemba Walker or Brandon Knight and having been scarred by the listless, oft-infuriating play of fellow European high-lottery selection Andrea Bargnani, readily expected Valanciunas to be a bust. Ironically, on draft night, Valanciunas talked optimistically about how he’d blend with Bargnani. That lasted 35 games and nobody would ever compare the two players again.
“Since I was a kid I liked to play hard. I like the taste of victories,” Valanciunas had said ahead of his first training camp with the Raptors that year, further differentiating himself from Bargnani.
The night before the draft, in my first of what would be dozens of interviews with Valanciunas over the ensuing years, he said he had been taking advice from forgettable Raptors forward Linas Kleiza: “He told me NBA is really hard job, so get ready for hard job,” Valanciunas had said.
Valanciunas prepared himself for the gig well, and after his final year playing in Lithuania, immediately filled Toronto’s biggest perennial hole in the middle. The big man would go on to start 99% of his appearances over six years, before mostly coming off of the bench in his final 30 games with the club.
Along the way he had to deal with an at times limited role in the offence, with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry dominating possessions for years. Countless times the ball would stick with DeRozan and Valanciunas would not get a chance to take advantage of his post position or pick-and-roll prowess.
Valanciunas took a back seat, and did so without complaint, something many other players of his stature would not have done.
“He’s a number one, team-first guy, tough guy that gave us everything,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri told us after a very long day, which included a phone call with Valanciunas this morning that he termed both tough and emotional.
“He’s such a phenomenal person and gave this franchise his all,” Ujiri said.
Valanciunas also often played sparingly – or not at all – in fourth quarters under Dwane Casey because of defensive limitations. While this was frustrating for Valanciunas, he never turned it into a distraction. Again, many would not have followed suit, but rocking the boat is not in Valanciunas’s nature. He simply worked harder, trying his best to force the coaches to put him on the floor. It paid off. Valanciunas played better defence this season and the addition of a three-point shot made him a better fit in today’s NBA.
Sadly, his final moments in a Raptors jersey were spent with him howling in pain after having his left thumb dislocated by Draymond Green. With Valanciunas eagerly anticipating a long-awaited return to action on Thursday, his life was turned upside down.
The second-longest serving Raptor now plays for the Memphis Grizzlies.
It will take some time to process that.
In an odd coincidence, the deal came nearly six years to the day after another emotional one involving Toronto and Memphis. That trade, sending out another fan favourite Jose Calderon, along with popular teammate Ed Davis, in exchange for Rudy Gay, was also made while the team was in Atlanta.
Valanciunas was a hit with the fans, his teammates, the front office, ownership, and, yes, the media.
“And yeah, you’re getting that calibre of a (person and player in Gasol) and on paper, we hope to be at a certain place, but J.V. was strong for us,” Ujiri said.
“We’ll miss him. We’ll miss (having) him around.”