Fratello’s Fantasy Pick: Jonas Valanciunas

Toronto Raptors v Detroit PistonsThe 27-47 Toronto Raptors have only eight regular season games remaining and will miss the playoffs for the fifth straight year.

With nothing to play for but pride and player development, coach Dwane Casey has started to give his younger guys more run. One such baller who has capitalized on this opportunity is 20-year-old rookie Jonas Valanciunas.

The 6’11” Lithuanian center was picked 5th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. However, he stayed in Europe last year due to contractual obligations. In his first season with the Raptors, Valanciunas has played in 55  games and started 50.

The Eurohoops-experienced rookie has come on of late, and Toronto is starting to see a return on their investment in the future franchise center. Valanciunas played in all 15 of Toronto’s March contests and averaged 11.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, and 1.1 bpg in 27.1 mpg while shooting 62% from the field and 82% from the line.

Over the last three games, Valanciunas has improved to 16.3 ppg, 9.7 boards and 3.7 blocks. He has scored in double figures in nine straight games, averaging 15 ppg over this span while shooting an impressive 69% from the field.

The big Lithuanian has played professional ball since he was 16 years old, so he’s far more seasoned than most rookies and can withstand the long NBA 82-game schedule.

As fantasy teams enter the home stretch, Valanciunas would be a great addition to a roster looking for points, boards and blocks at a reasonable price.

Remember the famous Lithuanian saying:  If you run from a wolf, you may run into a bear.

USA Basketball: And Then There Were Four

All four of the teams that finished the prelims at the top of their groups have made their way to the semifinals: USA, Lithuania, Turkey and Serbia. Team USA is looking to reclaim their first World Championship since 1994. On Thursday they had to get past Russia in the quarterfinals.

Russia played smart and hard for three-quarters of the game. But ultimately the United States’ defense wore them down and forced big turnovers, which led to easy baskets.

Kevin Durant continues to step up on offense and was sensational along with Russell Westbrook, who played his best all-around game of the tournament.

Lamar Odom also played one of his best games so far. In a subtle way he was the most important player in the game for the United States. Odom was huge on the glass and made things happen with the basketball.

Today USA faces Lithuania in the semifinals. They had an exhibition game against Lithuania just prior to the tournament and beat them 77-61. But the U.S. struggled during the first half and didn’t take its first lead until they got into the third quarter, so the score is deceiving. USA will need to get off to a quick start in today’s meeting. They don’t want to let Lithuania build confidence or momentum.

Coming off of seven straight wins, the wildcard Lithuanian team is having an incredible run. And judging from Lithuania’s outstanding performance against number one ranked Argentina on Thursday, they will be Team USA’s toughest challenge to date. Though a small country, Lithuania has a big tradition of basketball and they are hungry for this title.

Lithuania pounded Argentina with their great shooting. They relied heavily on 3-pointers, hitting 9 out of their first 11 attempts and finishing with 12 for the game.

Both the United States and Lithuania are very physical and athletic, so USA must be on high alert defensively. Derrick Rose will try to push the tempo on offense.

21-year-old Durant will be heavily counted on for scoring, as he’s been throughout the tournament. And Coach K will also be able to turn to his deep bench for reinforcement.

In the second semifinal match of the day Turkey will meet Serbia. No doubt the prospect of competing in the finals has the entire host country on the edge of its seat. The Sinan Erdem Dome will be packed with passionate fans who are ready to jam and the atmosphere will be unbelievable.

USA vs. Lithuania airs live on Saturday, September 11, 2010 at 12 PM ET on ESPN Classic; replay at 1:30 AM ET on ESPN2. Turkey vs. Serbia airs live at 2:30 PM ET on ESPN Classic. Click here to view the rest of the 2010 FIBA World Championship broadcast schedule.