The 2013-14 regular season was supposed to be the coronation of Jonas Valanciunas as one of the NBA's next big stars, however, through 12 games, it would appear that his progress is being halted by several damaging circumstances.
This past summer, the 21-year-old Lithuanian was the cock of the walk. After winning the NBA Summer League Most Valuable Player award and then going on to earn a Silver medal with Lithuania at FIBA EuroBasket 2013, the hype and expectations surrounding the 7-footer got even more intense.
For now, all of that has died down to a great extent. Inner circles that once touted Valanciunas as the next big thing aren't making a peep, if only for the time being.
So what happened? He's not playing THAT bad, is he?
Well, in actuality, he's not playing terribly at all.
As of November 22, Valanciunas is averaging 9.0 points on 48.9 percent shooting, including 7.4 rebounds and 1.0 blocks. His scoring and rebounding numbers have both seen an increase, if ever so slightly.
Those are respectable stats for a big man entering his sophomore season in the league. He hasn't taken that sizeable leap which a lot of people expected him to do, but you'll take it.
So what's holding him back? Why hasn't he taken that next step?
Well, for one, the constant fluctuation of his playing time is, without a doubt, having an impact on his production.
If all NBA games were one quarter, we'd be talking about Valanciunas in an entirely different light. The first quarter is where he really shines, having scored 61 points in 119 minutes.
Unfortunately, it all goes down from there.
Valanciunas starts off strong, but head coach Dwane Casey decides it's best to keep him on the sidelines late in games. Only 41 of his 322 total minutes this season have come in the fourth quarter.
It's nothing personal, at least I would hope it's not. Casey likes to play small-ball and go with specific matchup's on occasion. The poor help defense of Valanciunas also plays a part in his decision-making as well.
With so many teams going smaller, Casey said “You’ve got to have a centre that can switch out. That’s where Jonas’ next step is also, his growth part, to be out there on the floor to go against that, to be able to switch against guys like (Dwyane) Wade, LeBron (James) and guys like that is going to be the next step.”
All this train of thought does is eliminate Valanciunas from the equation. Despite his immense talent and potential, Casey feels that he'd rather succumb to the will of the opposing team, rather than set the tone himself by simply going with his best players.
Help defense is something that can be worked on and easily fixed. In spite of that deficiency, Valanciunas is still one of the better interior defenders on this roster. He's blocked a shot in nine games this season, with his length and size causing many slashers to alter their attempts at the basket.
His free-throw shooting is also an asset in late-game situations. Center's in the NBA tend to have a reputation for being notoriously mediocre (if not horrendous) shooters from the charity stripe. In the case of Valanciunas, he's shooting 81.8 percent, which means he isn't a liability in that regard. Wouldn't you want someone with his size and ability to shoot the basketball to be on the floor, regardless of the lineups your opponent is throwing together?
Perhaps I'm being unreasonable. It almost sounds like I'm putting all of the blame on Dwane Casey for Valanciunas not progressing as much as we'd all like. That couldn't be further from the truth. Sure, he plays a big role in what's going on, but there are also other mitigating factors that are throwing a wrench in his development.
There's no way of knowing how he feels on the matter, as he's never come out and publicly said anything, but I'm fairly certain that Valanciunas can't be happy with his role in the offense.
The burden of scoring for the Toronto Raptors falls mainly on the shoulders of both Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan. Both wings are averaging 20.4 and 21.6 points respectively, while attempting 19.7 and 18.5 shots.
Compare those numbers to Valanciunas, who is only putting up 9.0 points on 7.7 attempts, and you can clearly see how the ball is moving and where the shots are coming from.
There are some moments where you get the sense that Valanciunas is looking to score every time he touches the basketball, only because he rarely gets any opportunities in the first place. When he gets into that mindset, he tends to force the issue and not take smart shots.
Over the last four games, Valanciunas has scored just four points on three occasions (November 13 vs. Memphis, November 15 vs. Chicago and November 20 vs. Philadelphia). He took six or less shots in each of those games. However, on November 17 against the Portland Trail Blazers, Valanciunas took 11 shots and finished with a near double-double of 19 points and nine rebounds.
The proof is in the pudding. Valanciunas is more valuable to this team when he's being fed the ball and looking to create on offense.
It's just easier said than done when two of your teammates are hoisting up nearly forty shots combined themselves.
Lest we forget that we are just 12 games into an 82 game season. It's always darkest before the dawn. There are better days ahead and all that jazz.
By the grace of the good lord, the Toronto Raptors find themselves in first place in the Atlantic Division with a losing record of 5-7. Things aren't so bad, right? Could be worse?
It hasn't been a perfect start to the season for Jonas Valanciunas. It's hard to argue with that. Perhaps we all set ourselves up for failure by placing him on this pedestal as the immediate saviour of the franchise. Maybe we all expected greatness too soon.
He's a great young player with a long and prosperous future lying ahead of him.
Is he progressing though?
Somewhat. It's baby steps. It comes in small doses.
His PT needs to have more stability, his teammates and coaches need to put more faith in him, and when he does have the ball, Valanciunas needs to make smarter decisions.
Follow Christopher Walder on Twitter at @WalderSports
*all statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com*
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