DONGGUAN, China — There are few coaches — or maybe no coaches — on the planet who know Jonas Valanciunas’s basketball game better than Nick Nurse.
When Nurse was hired as an assistant with the Toronto Raptors six years ago, his first assignment was to work with the 27-year-old Lithuanian. And whether they were in Toronto, Lithuania, Los Angeles or Las Vegas, the two were virtually tied at the hip until the big man was traded this past February to Memphis.
Now, as the star centre for Lithuania, Valanciunas stands in the way of Canada’s chances at reaching the second round of the FIBA World Cup. The two teams will meet Tuesday night in a must-win game for Canada.
“Obviously love Jonas. I’m going to try to kick his ass (Tuesday), but I love him, right?” Nurse said with a laugh.
The 23rd-ranked Canadians lost to Australia in their opener on Sunday, while No. 7 Lithuania thrashed Senegal 101-47. Valanciunas had 13 points and 11 rebounds in just 20 minutes of action.
The seven-foot centre, who was young and unpolished when the 52-year-old Nurse arrived in Toronto, blossomed into a Raptors fan favourite, and one of the best frontcourt players in this World Cup.
Seeing the centre traded in February to Memphis for Marc Gasol couldn’t have been easy for Nurse.
“I don’t think there was a guy that I spent as much time with, built a strong long relationship with,” the coach said. “Obviously everybody that knows Jonas knows he’s a great guy, really good to be around, he’s a super pleasant personality. It was fun for me.”
Their first off-season spent together in Lithuania, they purposefully didn’t do any work around the basket. Valanciunas had been strictly a post-up player, and Nurse challenged him to be more.
“I wanted to get him out on the floor and handle the ball, reverse the ball, and (dribble hand offs), and run into screens and even shoot some from the perimeter,” the coach said after Monday’s practice at Dongguan Basketball Center. “I just remember it was fun to kind of watch that part of his game open up a little bit, and I know it was fun for him to expand his game a little bit.”
The Lithuanian and Canadian squads paint strikingly different pictures in China. A Canadian side that could have been stocked with NBA players arrived with just two in Cory Joseph and Khem Birch, after one star after another withdrew their names before camp opened.
“Yes!” Valanciunas joked — with a fist pump — about the NBA stars missing from Canada’s team.
And while Lithuania has just two NBAers in Valanciunas and Domantas Sabonis, Valanciunas has reported for national team duty every summer since he was 15. Sit out? He wouldn’t dream of it. Lithuanian players bleed green. There’s a deep-rooted pride in playing for country that seemingly has yet to take hold in Canada.
“Basketball in Lithuania is a second religion,” Valanciunas said. “Everybody since Day 1 is trying to play basketball or follow basketball or stuff like that. It’s a big thing in Lithuania. So you’re kind of under some pressure, but it’s a good pressure.”
A huge and rowdy Lithuanian crowd, with fuzzy green wigs and painted faces, packed the arena for Sunday night’s game. A flag the size of a swimming pool was passed around the crowd.
The team has been beloved, particularly since Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. Two years earlier, the Soviet team that beat the U.S. to win gold at the Seoul Olympics had four Lithuanians in its starting lineup.
Struggling Lithuania couldn’t afford to play at the 1992 Barcelona Games until Jerry Garcia and his rock band The Grateful Dead, hearing about their plight, cut the team a cheque. They also made sure the Lithuanians stood out in Barcelona, providing tie-died T-shirts — with a dunking skeleton logo — and shorts specially designed for the team.
In a dramatic ending, Lithuania battled the United Team — representing the former Soviet Union minus the Baltic states — for Olympic bronze, and won. They honoured The Grateful Dead by wearing their garish outfits on the medal podium.
This year’s Lithuanian team could well play for a World Cup medal.
Nurse knows Valanciunas and Sabonis — combined they’re one of the best frontcourts in the international game — could punish his Canadian team on Monday.
“Well, obviously it’s one of the top teams in the world, right? We know we’ve got our hands full and it’s a big, strong experienced good team,” Nurse said. “What more can you say about them? Bunch of pros, bunch of guys who’ve been through the FIBA national team, there’s a bunch of guys I coached against at the Olympics (for Great Britain), which was 2012, so there’s some guys that have been around awhile.
“Again we’re going to have to play extraordinarily well to have a chance to beat them.”
Canada, which was drawn into arguably the World Cup’s toughest group, needs an upset of Lithuania to advance to the second round. The group’s top two teams move on while the bottom two are relegated to the classification side of the draw.
“I think for us to get through, we’re going to have to win,” Nurse said.
The Canadians cap the preliminary round against 33rd-ranked Senegal on Thursday.
The World Cup is the main qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a global stage Canada’s men’s team hasn’t played on since 2000 in Sydney.
Seven teams from the World Cup earn automatic berths, while the next 16 will play in one of four second-chance Olympic qualifying tournaments next June.