Sports Basketball

Valanciunas: We'll do our best to get to Finals

By Sean Fitzgerald, 24 Hrs

 "We still have some areas that we can be better on," says Toronto Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas. "We’re still correcting some areas, practicing and working every day, and trying to be better as players." (photo by Craig Robertson/Postmedia Network).

"We still have some areas that we can be better on," says Toronto Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas. "We’re still correcting some areas, practicing and working every day, and trying to be better as players." (photo by Craig Robertson/Postmedia Network).

Can Jonas Valanciunas promise that the Toronto Raptors will reach the NBA Finals this year?

Nope. He’s not going to make that kind of guarantee, especially with a healthy LeBron James playing in the same conference. But the Raptors’ seven-footer tells 24 Hours that he’ll try his very best to get the team there.

The Lithuania-born Valanciunas, who recently had a career-high game for rebounds against the surging Boston Celtics, knows that most analysts don’t see the Raps getting to the Finals, despite a phenomenal offensive year from DeMar DeRozan.

But the 24-year-old centre has shown glimpses of playoff prowess in the past, excelling in a few games against the Indiana Pacers last spring before missing eight straight games due to injury. Perhaps 2017 could be his year.

For now, he’s focused on the regular season – as well as raising his young son with wife Egle Acaite – and his new partnership with GoDaddy (see sidebar below). Here are some of the highlights from our recent conversation with him.

I enjoyed watching you guys in the playoffs last year. For this season, how can the Raptors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers and get into the NBA finals?

It’s going to take a lot, because basketball has grown. Every team is trying to play better basketball. We still have some areas that we can be better on. We’re still correcting some areas, practicing and working every day, and trying to be better as players. As individuals. I can’t promise that we’re going to be there [in the Finals], but I can promise that we will do everything we can to be there. It comes down to the little things. It comes down to every game. We had Boston [last week], and we beat Boston. Now we’re moving forward.

Give me a sense of your game this season – what you’re most proud of, and what you want to improve for the second half.

I’m most proud of the fact that we’re winning. You know, it’s not about your individual stats, and it’s not about how you’re playing. It’s not an individual sport. It’s a team sport, and the most important thing is that you’re winning the games. So I think it’s all about that. You always want to play well, score 20 points, have more rebounds, and do more things on the court, but it’s not about that. It’s about winning, it’s about playing as a team and it’s about helping each other to be better. Pulling for each other. Because we need help, as players. We need help from each other.

And speaking of help, I know you guys have Jared Sullinger coming back from injury pretty soon. What do you think he’s going to bring?

He can shoot threes, and he can stretch the floor a little bit, so he’s going to be a great addition at the power forward. He’s playing hard, and he’s a great rebounder. He’s going to have some moves at the post. I’m excited for him.

I know that you’re a fan of Netflix’s Narcos series. What else are you binging these days?

Right now, I’m watching Vikings. It’s a great show. I really enjoy it. I’m on the fourth season right now, and that’s what I watch on the plane. Most of my free time is on the plane, when we’re flying to different cities, so that’s when I have some time to watch shows and movies.

Your son will be two in March. How has being a father changed you?

I see myself differently, and I see my life differently. I’m not a young kid anymore, who can do whatever he wants and doesn’t give a damn about anything. I have a kid at home, and I have a wife. I’ve got to look at everything in a more responsible way. I’ve got to plan for the future, and not just live this moment.

Little men for the big man

Everyone wants a piece of mini Jonas Valanciunas. The Raptors’ centre recently collaborated with GoDaddy on a campaign to show the value of the company’s services for small businesses, and in the commercial for the campaign, Valanciunas introduces his mythical business – named Itty Bitty Ballers.

The imaginary business produces small 3D renderings of Valanciunas himself, which were actually manufactured by Selftraits. Fans went crazy for the figurines – which feature Valanciunas in a variety of funny poses – and everything sold out within a week.

The figurines sell for $75, with all proceeds going to charity, and GoDaddy has told fans to keep checking the Itty Bitty Ballers website for updates on possible new shipments. You can purchase Valanciunas doing the splits, flexing his muscles, taking a selfie, riding a raptor or doing variety of other goofy things.

So, which one of the poses is Valanciunas’ favourite?

“Probably the one where I’m doing the splits, because I’ve never done the splits before,” he admits. “That one helps me get closer to my goal of being able to do the splits one day.”