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Lewenberg: Lowry's tough love for Valanciunas

Josh Lewenberg
1/14/2014 1:49:02 PM
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TORONTO - With just over two minutes remaining in the first half of Monday's win over the lowly Bucks, Kyle Lowry dumped the ball into Jonas Valanciunas on the left block.

Isolated against Ersan Ilyasova, Valanciunas turned to face up, took one dribble and barreled into the smaller defender, who took the charge.

As Milwaukee called a timeout, Lowry followed the Raptors' promising sophomore centre straight to the bench. “Know your opponent,” he implored, instructing Valanciunas to post-up when he has a size and strength advantage over the defender.

The Raptors were up by 14 at the time, they would go on to win by 22 and Valanciunas would register his 12th double-double of the campaign, four more than he totalled as a rookie last season. Still, Lowry was all over the gaffe. The two have developed a mutually beneficial mentor-protégé relationship.

"He's kind of like a coach," Valanciunas said of Lowry after practice the day prior. He knows a lot, he tries to help everybody, especially me because I'm the young guy."

Lowry has been as tough on the young centre as anyone in the Raptors organization and as such his fingerprints can be found all over the 21-year-old's continued development.

"He's been great," coach Dwane Casey told TSN.ca, speaking of Lowry and the leadership role he's taken with Valanciunas. "He has a way of getting on him but yet still he has a relationship with him that he can talk to him that way.

"Other people may not understand it but Kyle's done a great job of working with Jonas, letting him know what he needs to do. [He's] just been a great mentor to him. That's been huge for Jonas."

Both players are approaching the middle of their second season together in Toronto. Lowry was acquired in a trade from Houston in July of 2012, just around the same time Valanciunas - Toronto's fifth overall pick in 2011 - had arrived from Lithuania.

After missing the bulk of training camp with injuries last season, both of their Raptor careers got off to shaky starts. While Lowry struggled through injuries, fluctuating playing time and philosophical differences with the coaching staff, Valanciunas experienced the growing pains you would expect from a 20-year-old getting accustomed to his surroundings in a new country, in a new league.

Valanciunas has seen his playing time increase by five minutes per night in his second season; he's regularly on the court during crucial moments at the end of games and he is becoming more of a focal point in Toronto's offence. However, as both his coach and his point guard would tell you, he's far from a finished product.

He continues to make nightly mistakes - with his positioning, in the pick-and-roll game, and on defence, particularly as the help man - and Lowry is usually the first person to let him hear about it.

"Every time he messes up we talk about it," Lowry said. "I tell him what he did and then he fixes it and I congratulate him when he does it [right].

"I think he has the skills and he has the heart and he has the right mentality to be one of the best bigs in the league," the Raptors' point guard continued. "My constructive criticism is just tough, big brother love. I think the world of him, I think he can be so good [and] that's why I push him. I'm always going to be tough on him because I know how good he's going to be."

Lowry, an eight-year NBA vet, is also coming into his own, playing the best basketball of his career and spearheading the Raptors' recent resurgence. "That's just coming from buying in if you ask me," former Raptors teammate Alan Anderson said of Lowry. Most importantly - for a player that will be in the market for a new contract this summer - he is well on his way to shedding the reputation that has followed him like a dark cloud over the years.

"Kyle's showed he's been a positive leader," Casey said over the weekend. "I think that was the biggest question among coaches around the league, could he be a positive leader and be productive on the court."

Not only has he been productive, averaging career-highs across the board, but he's been the consummate professional his team has desperately needed him to be while remaining a positive influence on his younger teammates, namely Valanciunas.

Occasionally combative, Lowry's fiery nature has often been misunderstood. The reality - which his teammates and coaches have come to accept and appreciate - is, he holds himself and everyone around him to an incredibly high standard. He is a fierce competitor with an unrelenting will to win. 

Lowry is a strong personality, certainly not the first Casey has coached. The Raptors' coach worked with future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett in Minnesota and current Nets bench boss Jason Kidd in Dallas, but Lowry's leadership style reminds him of another hard-nosed point guard from his past.

"The guards that I've had, Gary Payton was one of the [toughest]," Casey said, having coached ‘The Glove' as an assistant in Seattle. "He would use some colourful words to talk with his teammates but they understood it, he had a relationship with [them], just like Kyle. Kyle reminds me so much of Gary in the fact that he can talk to players in a certain way that they understand because he has their respect and he has a relationship with them.

"As long as you have that relationship and you back it up with love and real sugar than you can get on guys but I haven't seen Kyle be overly tough on JV, just when he needs it and just the right amount."

As Casey points out, Lowry walks a fine line between tough love and going too far, but he does it with precision. He's hard on Valanciunas because he recognizes the young man's upside but also, and most importantly, he knows the seven-footer can take it.

"He's really receptive," Lowry said, "because I tell him, I tell him why I'm so tough on him and he understands that.

"He knows how to do it," said Valanciunas, who has thick skin, having played professionally in Europe since he was 15. "I understand he's my teammates, he wants me to do good and [I've] just got to live with that."

Whether or not Valanciunas realizes or fully appreciates it now, Lowry should have a long-lasting impact on his auspicious NBA career. As for Lowry, his future with the team remains uncertain but wherever he ends up, after cashing in on this season's revival, his Raptors legacy will live on in the growth of the franchise's emerging centre.

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