TORONTO - Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas is not going to sneak up on anybody in his second NBA season.
He's no longer the Raptors' ace in the hole. He's a known commodity and the league has been paying attention.
If you've waited this long to hop on the bandwagon, you may be too late. It's already nearing capacity. Valanciunas, a member of last season's All-Rookie Second Team, was recently voted the international player most likely to have a breakout campaign in NBA.com's annual GM survey. Expectations are sky-high for the sophomore, and for good reason.
Sometimes it's easy to forget he's only 21 years old.
"He's still learning," head coach Dwane Casey said of the Lithuanian following the team's second-to-last practice before Wednesday's season opener. "His is a growing process. He's not there [yet], he wasn't there last year [and] he's still growing this year."
Casey's reminder is an important one. For all he accomplished in his first season as a 20-year-old learning the NBA game and mastering a new language, for all the work he put in and the strength he put on during a busy summer, he still has work to do. With the rest of the league - including several elite Eastern Conference centres - zeroing in on him, the learning curve won't get easier. The hope, for Casey and the Raptors, is that he's better prepared for what's to come now that he has a full year under his belt.
"It's my second year and it's easier because it's kind of the same thing as last year," a more comfortable and noticeably more confident Valanciunas said Monday. "[It's the] same coach [and] same defence so I'm familiar with the schemes."
"I just think his confidence is up," said teammate Landry Fields, who's also going into his second year with the Raptors. "He's playing a lot more comfortably out there and the chemistry he has with the first group is that much better as well."
As a rookie, Valanciunas averaged 8.9 points and 6.0 rebounds in 62 games, including 57 starts. In a season loaded with the peaks and valleys expected from any young big man - specifically on the defensive end - he finished strong, scoring in double figures in 17 of the final 19 contests while showing positive growth as a defender when paired with Amir Johnson.
After earning MVP honours at the Las Vegas Summer League and helping guide Lithuania to a second-place finish in FIBA's Eurobasket tournament, Valanciunas has been asked to focus on his continued growth as the anchor of Casey's defence in training camp. Part of that process began in the offseason when he put on approximately 10 pounds in added muscle and is now predicated on his wherewithal to use it the right way.
In addition to improved balance, to avoid some of the "silly fouls" he picked up last season, Casey and the coaching staff have worked with Valanciunas on his vertical jump. The goal, Casey says, is for Valanciunas to defend the paint and contest shots in the lane by going straight up, without reaching in or coming down with his hands.
"The officials have to know he's going straight up every time, that's his game," the Raptors' coach said, stressing the importance of consistency in Valanciunas' approach. "If you get that reputation [then] you don't get the cheap fouls so he's got to earn that reputation of verticality."
"We're working every day," Valanciunas said of the technique. [It] still needs work but we're working and I hope [I'm] going to be good [at] that."
"That's the challenge he has," Casey continued, "is doing it every night."
Internally, the Raptors know they'll need to remain patient with the young centre regardless of the second-year expectations they have - and the rest of the league has - for him.
"The game is so fast for a young player that you've got to process [the little things] probably in about a three- or four-second period of time," Casey pointed out. "He's still learning that."
"There's days, there's possessions [where] he's great at it and there's possessions that he has no clue what hit him. Every young player goes through it, he's going through it and he's [still] a work in progress."
No one's expecting the adjustment he'll need to make in year two to be easy, it wasn't in year one, but Valanciunas has made believers out of the Raptors organization with his dedication and unrelenting work ethic.
"I like his approach," Casey said, praising his young centre. "I like his attitude. He doesn't give up [and] he continues to work at it but it's something he has to learn and something he has to go through."
It won't happen overnight but Casey and the Raptors are expecting big things from Valanciunas. As the start of his second season approaches, the league watches with anticipation. How good will he be and how long will it take for him to get there?