2023 FIBA World Cup: Jonas Valančiūnas embracing role with Lithuania and wants to continue journey with New Orleans

Lithuania center Jonas Valanciunas (17) celebrates a basket between Montenegro centers Bojan Dubljevic (14) and Nikola Vucevic (4) during the second half of a Basketball World Cup group D match in Manila, Philippines Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023.(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Lithuania center Jonas Valančiūnas celebrates a basket between Montenegro centers Bojan Dubljević (14) and Nikola Vučević (4) during the second half of a FIBA World Cup Group D match in Manila, Philippines, on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

MANILA, Philippines — Whether inside New Orleans’ Smoothie King Center or here at Mall of Asia Arena, when the lights are on and the lineups are announced, Jonas Valančiūnas will ram his bruising shoulder into teammate after teammate. It’s simply his tradition.

The 6-foot-11 Lithuanian center has muscled a decade-long career matching that brute force with skilled footwork and a soft touch. When stigma once circulated among NBA scouts that Europeans cowered from physicality, Valančiūnas always relished throwing around his size and strength, grinning like a schoolyard bully. Today’s game gnaws at him, gravitating giants beyond the 3-point line, no matter how valuable Valančiūnas’ high release on his outside jumper becomes when fully weaponized.

“I don’t want to be stretching out. I want to be a down-low player,” Valančiūnas told Yahoo Sports. Wearing his forest green practice uniform, he’s leaned up against a basket following Lithuania’s Tuesday morning drill work. A grizzly beard still frames his jawline. “My main game is going to be in the paint, always. Set screens, roll hard. Do damage inside on the low post. But when they’re plugging the paint, when they’re rotating, when they’re leaving you alone, being able to knock down a 3-point shot, this is what I’m still working on.”

That challenge has presented little issue while captaining the Lithuanians to the second round of the FIBA World Cup. When he’s rested, Valančiūnas has bent over the LED board positioned before each bench, a long, white towel draped over his head and around his neck, pounding the display while barking rotation calls at his team’s defense. On the floor, the absence of his country’s All-NBA big man, Sacramento Kings center Domantas Sabonis, has positioned Valančiūnas in the middle of Lithuania’s four-out offense. Living in the lane, he’s posted two double-doubles — plus a pair of 3-pointers — during the national team’s 3-0 start after a convincing 91-71 victory over fellow NBA center Nikola Vučević and Montenegro on Tuesday.

Both clubs will enter the second phase of this tournament in Group J, where they will meet Team USA and the winner of Wednesday’s matchup between New Zealand and Greece.

Battling in the World Cup lies at the forefront of Valančiūnas’ mind, and his appearance was never in doubt, despite the number of NBA talents who have remained at home. He has played for the national team every summer of his career. “It feels like 16 years,” he smiled. Valančiūnas prides himself on that durability, playing in over 70 games in seven of his 11 seasons stateside. “I love competing. I want to push myself to my limit. It’s not forever. You gotta use it while you can,” Valančiūnas said. “You know, one day, you’re gonna be done. You’re gonna be over. And nobody’s gonna ask you to play.”

Valančiūnas, 31, does have some attention focused on his post-playing chapter. One week before the World Cup tipped across Southeast Asia, he joined the ownership group of BC Wolves, a Lithuanian basketball club created just 14 months ago. “I want to have a feel of basketball, no matter what. Playing, doing some other jobs. Coaching, front office. No matter what, I want to be connected to basketball,” Valančiūnas said. “So that’s what my next step is gonna be.”

This offseason offered another taste of the business of the sport, where Valančiūnas’ name featured prominently in New Orleans’ trade conversations. “You can’t be safe all the time and sitting and know where you’re going to be the next day,” Valančiūnas said. “You have to expect everything. There’s no hard feelings. Trades happen. It’s not like an unusual thing.”

The Pelicans inquired about switchable centers boasting greater mobility than Valančiūnas’ plodding paint presence brings. New Orleans was most notably linked to Cleveland All-Star center Jarrett Allen and the Pistons’ bouncy big man Isaiah Stewart. Although no trade materialized, and Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin has since traveled to Manila to visit with Valančiūnas and Team USA forward Brandon Ingram, New Orleans’ All-Star swingman.

Valančiūnas is well past the first trade of his career, which came as a shock. After six-plus years with Toronto, Valančiūnas woke from a pregame nap in Atlanta, 45 minutes before the trade deadline, to a phone call revealing he was being dealt from the eventual 2019 champion Raptors. His move to New Orleans before the 2021-22 season was a welcomed change of scenery, an intriguing opportunity to pair with the sensational, when healthy, Zion Williamson.

“He has the skill set and the first step, which I feel bad for people who’s guarding him,” Valančiūnas said. “It’s unbelievable things. When you’re just watching him play, you feel like, ‘Wow, what the f*** is going on?’ His power, his highlights, talk for himself.”

Those tantalizing glimpses of what Williamson is capable of and New Orleans’ brief stint atop the Western Conference last season have Valančiūnas eager for the 2023-24 campaign with the Pelicans, and he wants to sign a new contract extension with the franchise. Thanks to a previous two-year extension tacked onto the final year of the previous term, he is eligible to sign a new deal. Although the pricey contracts of Williamson, Ingram and veteran guard C.J. McCollum, make another agreement near or above Valančiūnas’ current $15 million salary a complicated calculus for Griffin’s front office.

“It was a great feeling being the No. 1 seed [in December]. That’s a big accomplishment,” Valančiūnas said. “I want to come back to that. And I want to stay longer there. I like the New Orleans group. I’m ready to go and do it.”