Valanciunas to play in NBA this season?

December, 3, 2011
12/03/11
4:33
PM ET
Ford By Chad Ford
ESPN.com
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The Toronto Raptors drafted Jonas Valanciunas with the No. 5 pick in the 2011 NBA draft knowing it would be at least a year before he came to the NBA.

But a source close to the team told ESPN.com on Saturday that there's a small chance they might be able to get him this season.

The source said that the team reached out to Valanciunas' agent over the weekend to gauge the center's interest in joining the Raptors in 2011-12. If Valanciunas has interest, the Toronto would have to work out a buyout with his team in Lithuania, Lietuvos Rytas.

Valanciunas does not currently have an NBA buyout for this season in his overseas deal, but things have changed for Lietuvos Rytas over the past five months. They failed to qualify for the Euroleague this season and the team will likely lose critical sponsorship money. Given the current situation, they need money more than Valanciunas.

Does the Lithuanian center want to come to the NBA this season? Valanciunas told NBA teams prior to the draft that he felt he needed at least one more year in Europe to get stronger and play more minutes at the highest level before coming abroad.

But the Raptors believe Valanciunas may be better served by joining the NBA now. The 19-year-old big man spent the entire summer and fall playing in Lithuania, giving him valuable experience. He showed what he was capable of in U-19 play, averaging a tournament-high 23 points, 13.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game to lead Lithuania to the gold medal. Against Team USA and Florida's Patric Young, a projected first-rounder in 2012, Valanciunas had 30 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks.

With the shortened NBA season, expectations also won't be as high. If Valanciunas came to the Raptors, he can practice with the team, get minutes off the bench and use the season to acclimatize to the NBA. By the start of training camp next fall, the Raptors believe he would be ahead of where he would be if he stayed in Europe.

If the Raptors are able to get Valanciunas now, it will be a major coup. Many NBA scouts believe he was the best long-term big man prospect in the 2011 draft and Toronto has a major need at the 5.

The news would also come as a blow to the Cavs. Cleveland had been high on Valanciunas and was expected to select him with the No. 4 pick. However, concerns about his buyout situation in Lithuania arose the week before the draft and the Cavs opted to play it safe and instead take Texas' Tristan Thompson after taking Duke's Kyrie Irving with the first pick. Had they known Valanciunas could come over this season, they likely would've taken him at No. 4.

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Chad Ford

Senior Writer, NBA Insider

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