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What Jonas Valanciunas Needs to Do to Vindicate New Toronto Raptors Deal

John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports

Wrapping your head around the Jonas Valanciunas deal is harder than trying to spell his last name. It’s easy to wonder simultaneously why the Toronto Raptors gave him so much money and what on Earth was he thinking when he could’ve gotten so much more.

Valanciunas is a true big man. He’s a full 7’0” tall, and he weighs in at 255 pounds. And it’s easy to find things that are “right” with him. His 8.2 Win Shares ranked sixth among centers last years, according to Basketball-Reference.com. His 20.6 Player Efficiency Rating was ninth — one spot ahead of Enes Kanter, who just signed a max deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

He averaged 16.5 points and 11.9 rebounds per 36 minutes — numbers that also stack up favorably with Kanter (19.6 and 11.3). And while Kanter had a few more points, Valanciunas was a more efficient scorer (62.3 true shooting percentage compared to Kanter’s 56.4).

So, if we’re basing this conversation on “market value,” it’s a no-question great deal for the Raptors, and you have to wonder a bit why Valanciunas didn’t hold out for more. But there are questions about him and whether he’ll be worth that contract in the longer term (as there are for Kanter, too).

For a man Valanciunas’s size, it’d be good to see him be more physical. In the modern NBA, big men, particularly centers, need to be able to do one of two things: stretch the court or protect the rim.

And while Valanciunas does a few things well, neither of those is particularly one of them, though, he has the potential to do the latter.

The elevated true shooting percentage is partly a product of his limited range. He shot 63.1 percent within five feet of the rim, but that was only 27th among players with 250 shots from that range. That’s good, but it’s not elite.

And unlike Kanter, while his defense is in need of some improvement, he’s not a whole scale disaster on that end of the court. According to ESPN, his Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.03 was 34th while Kanter’s was a distant last at -3.87. And while DRPM is a context-laden stat, the Raptors were a sub-par defensive team while both the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder were top 10 defenses when Kanter wasn’t on them. And both were disasters with him on them.

Furthermore,  Seth Partnow’s rim protection stats show Valanciunas’s rim protection numbers were decent, as he saved 1.10 points per game. However, that’s not the whole story. He only contested 49.7 percent of shots at the rim, which for someone who doesn’t do much else is kind of low. And that touches on the worries about the Lithuanian big man.

There are times when Valanciunas fails to play as huge as he is, and that’s where he can get a little frustrating. According to some numbers unique to Vantage Sports, we can see some intriguing things about him.

One thing they track is “DReb Pursuit Rate,” which is the percentage of the time a player goes for the defensive rebound. Valanciunas had the lowest rate of any starting center in the league (33.61). Kanter was second at 48.57. (Joakim Noah was first with 49.11).

Another thing they track is screening and its impact. Set Screen Outcome Efficiency is the percentage of screens that result in a scoring opportunity, either by the player or a teammate. While Valanciunas’s actual screens are decent, the aftermath is not. His 12.75 Set Screen Outcome Efficiency was also the lowest in the NBA.

Coupled that with the fact that, according to NBA.com, he scored just 85 points on 1.12 points per play as the roll man in the pick-and-roll all season. That indicates that he needs to be more effective rolling off his screens and getting to the rim. In other words, he is big; he just needs to play like it.

He needs to be aggressive with size. He needs to crash the boards with authority, roll to the rim like he wants the ball. He needs to play with more testosterone.

And this is the crux of his situation. If he can realize what his role needs to be, he can be a truly valuable asset on a contender. And Jesse Dorsey of BBallBreakdown.com argues that the Raptors’ recent changes in personnel will help Valanciunas to do that:

By replacing a cache of primary ball-handlers with players comfortable operating without the ball, the hope is the team falls into a better structure of ball and player movement to replace the departed off-the-bounce shot creation. Any kind of side-to-side movement should free up space around the rim for Valanciunas, who can be quite effective when he gets to his spots.

If that works out, Valanciunas can be a true 20-10 guy. And if he’s more aggressive defensively, he could be an asset as a rim protector.

And that’s the way everything falls with him. There’s just enough positive to warrant the chance the contract, and there’s just enough negative to make it worrisome. There are the “ifs” that warrant the “thens,” but there are also the “if nots.” More than most deals, this one could still break either way. It all depends on whether Valanciunas will own his size and be a big man’s big man.

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