By Lori Ewing
THE CANADIAN PRESS
BURNABY, B.C. _ Like virtually every bulky seven-foot basketball player, Jonas Valanciunas isn’t the most nimble of runners.
He dips his head and furiously pumps his arms, a lumbering style that is one of his biggest weaknesses.
So the Toronto Raptors decided to send their young centre to a place where they know a thing or two about running _ Eugene, Ore., to work with renowned strength and conditioning coach Jim Radcliffe.
“Speed is the priority,” Valanciunas said Thursday. “When you’re able to come back to contest a shot. . . It’s going to help a lot.”
The 22-year-old Lithuanian went twice this past summer to Oregon _ a hotbed for U.S. track and field for decades _ to train with Radcliffe.
The 56-year-old, whose lean physique could belong to a man three decades younger, is in his 29th year as strength and conditioning coach for the Oregon Ducks. He’s considered one of the foremost experts on sprint training in the U.S. and works with all of the Ducks teams to improve things like strength, speed, agility, and explosiveness.
“High knees, form, technique, how to run, how to use less energy,” Valanciunas said of his training sessions.
“How to turn with less steps,” he adds, and does an impromptu demonstration of a turn. It almost looks nimble.
Among his innovative methods, Radcliffe studied Valanciunas’s foot strike by having him run barefoot on pieces of paper. The paper shooting out backwards translates to too much back kick and not enough driving of the knees; shooting forwards means over-reaching.
Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who spent a couple days observing Radcliffe’s methods, said Valanciunas remains a work in progress, and won’t be lacing on the track spikes any time soon.
“He’s running better, he’s getting there, I don’t think he looks like Usain Bolt yet, but he’s doing better,” Casey said. “I think more than anything else he’s more conscious of it now, he’s lighter on his feet. . . more efficient.
“A lot of times you can expend so much energy by using too much of your arms and kind of flailing all over the place, and not going anywhere. . . so that was one of the main things, run lighter, more efficient, keep your arms tighter to the body, head more erect than (bent) over.”
Altering his running style hasn’t been easy, and Valanciunas said he still catches himself reverting to old habits.
“It’s not going to change it over the summer,” he said. “I’ve got to do that years and years.”
Jeff Weltman, the Raptors’ vice-president of operations, was largely responsible for sending Valanciunas to Oregon, and said the team is always up for new training techniques.
“The way (Radcliffe) was talking, saying ‘The way I want to introduce his feet to the floor’ and all this, it’s new lingo for us,” Weltman said. “That’s part of summers, keeping it fresh and making sure it’s not the same thing over and over, getting introduced to new ideas and bringing them back here.”
Weltman said he could see a difference in Valanciunas at the FIBA World Cup, where he led the tournament in field goal percentage and was a standout for Lithuania.
“I think his balance is better, I think he’s running better and his conditioning,” Weltman said. “He sees the way that he needs to train in a different light now.”
Three days into training camp at Fortius Sport & Health in Burnaby, his teammates have noticed improvement in Valanciunas, and not simply in his running.
“He’s grown a lot as a man, and with him playing for his country this past summer, he did extremely well and I think that’s going to carry over to our team, and he’s been showing it in these practices,” said DeMar DeRozan, who helped the United States to World Cup gold.
(DeRozan laughingly admitted to trash-talking Valanciunas when the U.S. played Lithuania in Spain. “It was all fun and games,” he said.)
Chuck Hayes, who guards Valanciunas in practice, said he’s more aggressive than last season.
He’s always working on the offensive glass, which is what you need, and he’s demanding the ball a lot,“ Hayes said. ”We don’t always give it to him in practice; in practice I’m guarding him all the time and he’s always demanding the ball. Over the course of the season that’s going to come into big play for us.“
Asked if he’s seen a speedier Valanciunas, Hayes laughed and said “It’s getting there. When he runs, he kind of dips his head when he gets going. But he’s moving, he’s moving.”
The Raptors will train at Fortius, the training headquarters of Canada’s women’s soccer team among other teams, through Saturday. They’ll host the Sacramento Kings in their pre-season opener at Rogers Arena on Sunday.