A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Of Intangibles vs Talent: Jonas Valanciunas vs Donatas Motiejunas in the 2011 NBA Draft

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Physical map of Lithuania. Click on the image ...

Who will be the 2011 NBA Draft's best C from Lithuania? (Image via Wikipedia)

In the 2011 draft there is really only one complete prospect: PG Kyrie Irving. The rest of the prospects split into two general groups: Talented offensive players with positional, defense, or effort level question marks, and more limited offensive players who are A grade in effort and defensive willingness.

Two Lithuanian Cs in the top 20 draw my eye in particular representing these two groups – and the talent vs intangibles debate in the draft in general: Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas.

Jonas Valanciunas is a classic undeveloped energy big man: He works hard, hits the boards, draws raves off the court. But I see him as an average talent. Physically he has the plus of being 7 feet tall, but will be one of the skinniest centers in the league when he comes into the NBA and has weak NBA athleticism – he can barely leave the ground. I care about strength and athleticism when evaluating big man physical talent a lot more than height – at best, they cancel out for Valanciunas. Skill wise Valanciunas lacks ability in the post, a weakness that will be greater exaggerated when facing bigger opponents in the NBA. His calling on that end is clean-up buckets off the pick and roll, but I’m not sure he’ll have the strength or athleticism to excel finishing once NBA defenses close off his space rolling to the rim. He also has the concern of averaging 8 fouls per 40 minutes played in the Euroleague. Fouling is likely to increase in the NBA – so he’ll have a lot to learn in mental awareness to stay on the court. All in all, he looks like a guy that makes the best of limited physical and skill talent due to effort – but is an energy big man when it comes down to it.

Donatas Motiejunas on the other hand is the virtual opposite. He is a tremendous skill level in the post, has shown great shooting ability and can pass the ball. He is the natural offensive gene and can look like a young Pau Gasol. But he has a reputation of laziness, lack of heart and neglect on the defensive end and boards. This is someone who with the right mindset would be an all-star lock. But, perhaps like DeMarcus Cousins last year, you wonder if it’s worth going down the road due to mental flaws.

The question is, which should win out? The limited player with great intangibles, or the talented player with weak intangibles?

One thing I’d say is that many enigmatic players tend to score the ball in the NBA. Brook Lopez, Andrea Bargnani, and Michael Beasley are enigmas and defensively unwilling – But they do make it as starting players due to their ability to score. The allure of stats and contracts tied to points per game gives the incentive on that end. Perhaps Motiejunas will follow their lead, scoring 17 points a game and making his way as a permanent starter in the league, but having an empty stat reputation. But does that make him the better player than a Valanciunas, if the latter’s destiny if he’s a Zaza Pachulia, Amir Johnson, Nick Collision level energy big man? +/- stats love these rebounding, little things backup big man over inefficient offense only players like Lopez and Bargnani. Perhaps getting Zaza instead of Lopez is a good thing, even if Valanciunas doesn’t get the personal glory of a Motiejunas.

But here’s the kicker for me, in favor of Motiejunas: What if he does get it? Or what if the lazy reputation is unfounded – and defensive lapses in his European league was a coaching decision to preserve fouls and energy. What if he just matures and figures it out as some players like Chris Webber and Zach Randolph have done, even if it takes half a career? Now you might be passing on Pau Gasol, not Brook Lopez. Getting Lopez in a draft instead of Zaza or Amir is somewhere between a minor win and minor loss. But the difference between Pau and Zaza is franchise changing. That’s why in my opinion, Minnesota choosing Wes Johnson over DeMarcus Cousins in last year’s draft was a bad draft pick no matter if the former ends up a good role player and the latter ends up an empty stats loser. You don’t win in this league by drafting good role players. You win by drafting perenniel all-stars and then getting those role players in the free agency or by trades. Minnesota has much more to lose in that pick by passing on Cousins if he reaches his potential as a superstar, than if they’d missed out on Wesley Johnson if he reaches his potential as a top notch 3pt shooting/defender role player.

All in all, I believe the easiest way to stick in the NBA is just to have standout talent and something about your body or skill level that’ll be a guarantee to translate – and likewise safest way for teams to draft is to take the most talented players. The league is too skilled and too fast for players to make it on their heart alone, no matter what we’d like to wish was true. Taking hustle players high in a draft is low reward and hardly less risky. There’s been plenty of intangibles/effort over talent big men like Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill who’ve proven bad picks. It’s really hard to make it in the NBA when you have neither standout physical or skill talent. What do you hang your hat on? While effort matters, ultimately, I believe your body and your game matters more – and when a guy like Aldrich goes 0 for 2 on those, it’s hard to make it. Aldrich has only played 1 season mind you – But it doesn’t look promising, especially with his older age for a second year player.

That’s why I think Motiejunas is the right pick over Valanciunas. You take the more talented player and have faith in your franchise to condition him and worst case scenario, you probably get a scorer who makes it in the league. Whereas I can’t shake the image of Valanciunas as a skinny, unathletic 7 footer who doesn’t have anything NBA caliber standout to bring the table except effort. We’ll see if I’m proven wrong.

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5 Responses

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  1. OTOH, would you prefer Brook Lopez or Joachim Noah, as that sounds like the choice you’re putting forward…

    Ravenred

    June 17, 2011 at 5:42 am

  2. Three things:
    1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0JdLMTqgao
    the first 10 seconds is all you need to watch.
    And, on a more serious note
    2. Motiejunas didn’t actually play in Euroleague.
    3. Motiejunas is almost two years older

    Professor Chaos

    June 17, 2011 at 8:58 am

  3. Writing Euroleague instead of his European league was a slip of the tongue, thanks for pointing that out.

    I’d be careful with the Noah comparison, as well as Biedrins and Chandler which I’ve heard for Valanciunas. The difference is all of those guys are great athletes, Noah slightly less athletic than the other two but he also came out of Florida with a special basketball IQ. Valanciunas has more like Anderson Varejao athleticism

    julienrodger

    June 17, 2011 at 10:06 am

  4. Based on what I read (not see) I tend to have opposite views than the article’s on the long-run NBA prospects of these players.

    Crow

    November 6, 2011 at 2:45 pm

  5. DMo gets his first start tonight! Fear him! He is not lazy anymore and he he eats babies

    yohanastrader

    February 27, 2013 at 12:06 pm


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