The Toronto Raptors were the hottest team in the East to start the season before falling back to earth with three straight losses, two of which came without prized offseason acquisition DeMarre Carroll in the lineup. Toronto is no longer undefeated or leading the conference, but there’s still plenty of reasons for optimism about the team’s prospects this year and going forward, mostly based on the play of center Jonas Valanciunas.
Valanciunas received a four-year, $64 million extension this past offseason, which is a lot of money for someone who ranked ninth in his team in fourth-quarter minutes last season. Coach Dwane Casey kept the 23-year-old center on a tight leash, concerned about his iffy defense. It was hard to blame him. When Valanciunas did play in the final period, the Raptors hemorrhaged points to the tune of 112 per 100 possessions.
Things have changed this season. Casey doesn’t have Amir Johnson to use as center in crunch time, which has forced him to give Valanciunas more play late. The team has done exceedingly well when he’s on the court, too. Through some tweaks to the team’s system and more trust from his coach, Valanciunas is emerging as a franchise cornerstone.
Valanciunas is averaging career highs in points per game (15), rebounds per game (10) and field goal percentage (62 percent). He’s not blocking many shots but is holding opponents to below average shooting percentages within 10 feet of the basket. His defensive rebound percentage has held even while sharing the court with a prolific glass cleaner like Luis Scola. As a team the Raptors are outscoring opponents by almost 10 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court and are getting outscored by nine points when he sits. He is, by all metrics, an above-average starting center.
That might not seem like high praise, but it’s hard to find young big men who can contribute on good teams. Valanciunas is one of just eight big men 23 years old or younger to be getting at least 25 minutes per game.
He’s tied for the top spot in Win Shares with Andre Drummond, a player who’s had a team built around his talents, unlike Valanciunas, who hasn’t had a typical high draft pick experience.
During his rookie and sophomore seasons, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay were ahead of Valanciunas in the pecking order. After Gay and Bargnani were moved, Lou Williams was brought in. He’s always been around a lot of shoot-first types.
Toronto has also been trying to win instead of building a team slowly. When it looked like they were ready to move on from their core after the Gay trade, they starting clicking on the court, putting any rebuilding plans on hold. Unlike most high picks who show promise, Valanciunas hadn’t been able to grow at his own pace and allowed to make mistakes.
Now entering his fourth season in the league and after gaining valuable experience playing for the Lithuanian national team, he’s finally ready to live up to the high standards required of a starter on a good squad. The front office has recognized that and has brought along a good rebounder with some range to pair him with in the starting lineup in Luis Scola and gotten rid of volume shooter Lou Williams as sixth man, going with the more well-rounded Cory Joseph.
Even Casey, who’s never seemed like JV’s biggest fan, has adapted to bring out the best of his emerging big man. The Raptors have begun to use a more conservative pick-and-roll scheme which allows Valanciunas to stay closer to the paint at all times. In the past, the Raptors would allow ball handlers to get to the middle on side pick-and-rolls, putting the responsibility of stopping the play on the big men:
Valanciunas simply isn’t quick enough to shut off penetration and recover to his man. The Raptors have recognized that now and are “icing” the pick-and-roll, which means the perimeter defender is forcing ball handlers to the baseline while the big man stays close to the paint:
Now that he has a system tailored to his strengths, Valanciunas is doing better on defense. He’s still far from an elite defensive anchor, however. His progression on that side of the ball will be key to taking the next step and becoming a true franchise player, as his offense is already well above average for a center. His quickness isn’t likely to improve, but his focus and anticipation could, making him a solid rim protector. That’s the hope anyway.
The Raptors made an investment in Valanciunas that goes beyond the money from his extension. They realized they had a special young talent, surrounded him with players who wouldn’t take away chances for him to assert himself on offense and changed their defensive scheme to suit his strengths. It was a bold move on their part, and so far it’s paying off.