Scaletta’s Summer Top 100 is a ranking of returning NBA players. For a full explanation of our methodology, read our intro.
Jonas Valanciunas is one of the most controversial players in the league within the confines of his own fan base. Some Toronto Raptors fans love him and feel that he should be getting more opportunities. Others feel that the No. 5 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft is never going to pan out to his full potential and lacks the post game to be a real threat.
Regardless how one feels about him, the 12.8 points per game he scored last year weren’t exactly eye-popping, but is that because he doesn’t have the skills or because he’s not getting the ball enough? Or, if it’s the former, is it still early enough in the 24-year-old’s career that he can still do something about it? All those questions are what makes this a pivotal season for the Lithuanian big man.
Advanced stats positively adore Valanciunas. According to Basketball-Reference.com, last season only seven players had a Player Efficiency Rating over 20, notched better than .200 Win Shares per 48 minutes and had a true shooting percentage over 60. Of them, Valanciunas had the third-lowest usage percentage:
Valanciunas is conveniently sandwiched between Hassan Whiteside and Kanter in terms of usage percentage. Convenient because you can view him as a kind of mix between the two; not Kanter offensively, not Whiteside defensively, but unlike Kanter, a plus on the defensive end of the court and more offensive skills than Whiteside. Given more touches, he could become an All-Star.
However, the number of touches he gets will never be on him. The offense goes through Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, for better or worse. And the Raptors were last in the league with a 51.1 assist percentage in 2015-16, according to NBA.com.
No matter how much he works on his game, if he can’t touch the ball, he’s not getting any better.
Much of the debate with Valanciunas has to do with his post-up game. According to Synergy stats at NBA.com, he was in the 60.6 percentile on post-ups. He was exceptional as the roll man with 1.27 points per possession, which was good for the 90th percentile. Furthermore, only four players were more efficient than him who scored more than 100 points on such plays. On cuts, he was in the 84.8 percentile with 1.43 PPP. The only player who scored more than him more efficiently on such plays was DeAndre Jordan.
Furthermore, he did better off the bounce than his reputation suggests. Almost 40 percent of his shots were unassisted, and he shot 46.3 percent from the field when dribbling the ball one or more times. All those numbers suggest he should be getting fed the ball more. And while he’s a great screen-setter, which certainly helps DeRozan and Lowry, it wouldn’t hurt them to reciprocate and deliver the ball to the big man a little more often.
Valanciunas is not a great defender, but he’s not a liability either. According to his defensive dashboard at NBA.com, opponents shot .4 percentage points below their season average when he was the closest defender on the play and 4.0 percent when they were within six feet of the basket. When he was on the court, the Raptors’ defense gave up 5.5 more points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, normally a sign that he’s a liability.
But bear in mind that Valanciunas was backed up by Bismack Biyombo, who turned his defensive acumen into a massive payday this summer. Raptors coach Dwane Casey seems to believe that Biyombo had a positive influence on Valanciunas during his brief stay with the team, as Casey told Arden Zwelling of Sportsnet after a game in April:
There were a number of them Tuesday night, like late in the second quarter when Valanciunas defended a pick-and-roll perfectly and finished with a strong block of Frank Kaminsky’s lay-up. Or a couple minutes later, when Valanciunas stretched out to the perimeter to adjust a Courtney Lee attempt that missed the rim entirely.
Then, late in the fourth as the Hornets were fighting their way back into the game, Valanciunas came out from under the basket to swat away a Kemba Walker attempt, sending the guard crashing to the floor. That’s the same Kemba Walker who Casey remembers giving Valanciunas fits in his rookie season.
Look for Valanciunas to continue to improve on both ends of the court, and if he can get enough touches, he may fight for an All-Star spot.