In 2011, Jonas Valanciunas became the first Lithuanian-born player to be taken in the top 10 in the NBA draft. The Toronto Raptors selected Valanciunas with the fifth overall pick.

In June, a player with Lithuanian roots whom Valanciunas has mentored has a chance to go even higher.

Matas Buzelis, a 6-foot-10 forward who has spent this season with the G League Ignite, went fourth in ESPN’s most recent mock draft of 2024 prospects.

Buzelis was raised in the Chicago area. His father, Aidas, works for the Lithuanian men’s national team as a physiotherapist and has been privately employed by Valanciunas for the last nine years.

“He (Valanciunas) is pretty much like my uncle,” Buzelis told The Athletic. “I see him all the time.”

At the Rising Stars competition during All-Star Weekend, Buzelis made a game-winning shot in the semifinals to send his team to the championship game. Buzelis is averaging 11.8 points (48.8% FG) and 5.0 rebounds this season for the Ignite, which has a 2-21 record.

One of the pieces of wisdom Valanciunas has given to Buzelis is don’t read too much into where mock drafts are forecasting you will go.

“There are going to be all these noises,” Valanciunas said. “One day, you’re number one. One day, you’re number 20. It’s going to happen. You just have to stay the course and stay true to what you do. Just know where you want to be. Know what you need to do to become a good player. It’s just the start now.”

Valanciunas was raised in Utena, Lithuania. As a child, he spent a lot of his time outdoors. He helped maintain his family’s garden and chopped firewood.

Valanciunas moved to Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, at 15 years old. Shortly thereafter, he began playing basketball professionally for a second-division men’s team.

The 2012-13 Raptors already had Lithuanian native Linas Kleiza on their roster when they drafted Valanciunas. Valanciunas said his English was “terrible” early on. Kleiza helped Valanciunas acclimate to his new environment.

“I didn’t know the stores, man,” Valanciunas said. “Which store is for what? Groceries. Home goods. Whatever. I’m like Googling, ‘What is that store for?’ Especially in Canada. I’ve never seen those stores.”

The Raptors made the playoffs in five of Valanciunas’ six full seasons with the team. In 2015-16, they went 56-26 in the regular season and earned the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed. In the Eastern Conference finals, the Raptors lost a six-game series to the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers.

In 2019, Valanciunas was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies. A little more than two years later, the New Orleans Pelicans acquired him in a deal that required them to send out the No. 10 pick to get back the No. 17 pick, which became Trey Murphy.

“I’m blessed to see different cultures all over the place,” Valanciunas said. “Now I’m in New Orleans. I am learning another different culture. I am learning the people. I am learning the city, which has a big history. Big history to learn. This is true roots. You see the true culture. It’s like they have their own culture.”

Valanciunas is having another productive season for the Pelicans. He is averaging close to a double-double (13.8 points and 9.6 rebounds). The Pelicans are 58 games into the regular season, and Valanciunas has yet to miss a game. Aidas Buzelis’ assistance has played a part in Valanciunas’ durability.

“Maintaining your physical feeling,” Valanciunas said about Aidas Buzelis’ role. “Stretching a lot. You’re not that tight. After the game, you go and stretch. Do a lot of recovery. You just feel better. Not just like a basketball player. Feel better as a human being.”

Valanciunas still has good years left in the tank. But when his time in the NBA comes to an end, it’s doubtful he and his family remain stateside.

“Time is going to come,” Valanciunas said. “I love the places. I love traveling. But nobody beats home. Home is home. Home is Lithuania, where I played for all my years. Where I grew up. Where all my friends are at.

“I want to travel. But I hope — I have talked with my wife many, many times — but I hope we are going to land in Lithuania after my career.”

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