Why It's Too Early for Toronto Raptors to Give Up on Jonas Valanciunas

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 23, 2014

Things haven't gone too smoothly for Jonas Valanciunas since the ball dropped and the calendars changed to 2014. 

He's seemingly lost his prominent spot in the rotation as the Toronto Raptors have started losing games with more frequency than they've experienced since trading away Rudy Gay. After playing a combined 46 minutes against the Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves, the Lithuanian center spent only 14 on the court when the Los Angeles Lakers came to town. 

And after that, Dwane Casey held him to 18 minutes in a road game versus the Charlotte Bobcats

During that four-game stretch, the promising big man is averaging only 3.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game, and he's shot just 6-of-21 from the field. Not exactly what the Raptors were looking for. 

Here's what the National Post's Eric Koreen had to say about the dip in playing time: 

With the Raptors, who have one foot in the present and one reaching toward a hoped-for future, Jonas Valanciunas’s lack of productivity is the far more significant issue. Coach Dwane Casey has entrusted Valanciunas with just 32 minutes over the last two games, as the young centre has had trouble containing Pau Gasol and Al Jefferson. In December, when the Raptors were rolling, Valanciunas averaged 31 minutes per game. He has surpassed that number just once in the last seven games.

Are the Raptors giving up on their second-year center? 

That seems to be the case, especially since they don't have much reason to remain competitive during the 2013-14 campaign. It would be better to let Valanciunas continue learning on the job, even if it means slipping back in the Eastern Conference standings. 

But playing time or no playing time, one thing is certain: It's far too early for Toronto to give up on Valanciunas. 


Young and Full of Potential

Let's not forget who we're talking about. 

Big men typically take a while to develop into quality NBA players, and the ones who can make an immediate impact are few and far between. This is especially true for players without any experience playing college basketball, as they usually aren't as far along their developmental curves. 

Such is the case for Valanciunas. 

Remember, this center is only 21 years old, and he won't turn 22 until May. Not only is he in the midst of his second professional season, but he's still filling out and is rather young for a player with a year in the NBA already under his belt. 

He should be handled with patience, and it's still fine to view him as the potential savior of the Raptors as a result. 

Additionally, let's not forget about how imbued with potential he was when entering the league. Head coach Dwane Casey had this to say about the big man before he'd ever suited up for the Raptors, per Scott Carefoot of TheScore.com

At the worst, we’re getting a Joakim Noah from Chicago—a guy who mans the middle, challenged a little bit in terms of scoring in the paint but as far as of pick-and-rolling to the basket, he has great hands to roll and finish. He hasn’t developed that consistent outside jumpshot at the elbows yet, but something that you can’t teach—and I do know that it’s an NBA skill—is each every time he walks on the floor, he’s gonna hit people, he’s gonna play with energy, he’s gonna play hard, he’s gonna bring an energy to the court that is an NBA skill. 

Grantland's Sebastian Pruiti had less reason to be biased, but he was still rather effusive with his praise: 

Despite his shortcomings, Valanciunas figures to have an early impact on the Raptors because he complements the pieces they have now (Andrea Bargnani is an effective pick-and-pop player compared to Valanciunas’s bruising pick-and-roll style), and he’s effective in areas where Toronto struggles (notably, help defense). His weaknesses will likely be minimized as the Raptors focus on what he does well, and that should make Toronto a place where Valanciunas can develop into the type of player he’s capable of being.

Back then, it was rather difficult to find a negative take on Valanciunas' potential. He was almost certainly going to be a quality big down the road. 

That evaluation shouldn't completely swing in the other direction after a year and a half in the NBA. It's allowed to change based on his play, but it's too soon to change views to the opposite side so quickly. 


The Post Moves

This was supposed to be one of Valanciunas' weaker areas. 

Pruiti pointed out as much, writing that while the Lithuanian big man's team force-fed him the ball on the blocks, he didn't look comfortable with the rock in his hands, struggled with his shot and turned it over far too often. 

Even against weaker competition, he was scoring 0.82 points per possession. 

But all of a sudden, J.V. is starting to look like one of the stronger post-up players in the Association. Take a gander at the following stats, courtesy of Synergy Sports (subscription required): 

Year% UsedPoints per PossessionNBA RankFG%

Even though Valanciunas has declined when it comes to his efficiency, this is a more impressive season with his back to the basket. The reason? That second column. 

He's become more of a go-to player when working out of the post, and he's increasingly comfortable with those plays. Despite the higher usage, he's still only barely declined in terms of efficiency. 

There's typically a tradeoff between volume and efficiency, but the promising young center is breaking that theory. 

Just look at the diverse array of ways he scores in this video: 

The touch he displays at the beginning of the outing and the pump fakes that get Andre Drummond up into the air (starting at 1:02 in the above video) are quite impressive, and it's hard to watch the sequence without getting excited about his offensive potential. 

The same can be said after watching him go to work against the undersized Miami Heat.  

Valanciunas' footwork is still coming along, but he already has the combination of size, physicality and touch conducive to thriving in the post. Scoring so efficiently in post-up opportunities for two years in a row isn't a fluke, after all. 

This was originally a weakness when Valanciunas was going into the draft, but that's no longer the case. 


Signs of Defensive and Rebounding Skills

It's not like the Toronto center is a one-way player, though. 

He's been making a significant impact on the glass, and his defensive presence is getting better and better as his career progresses. 

Below you can see how his rebounding percentages have trended during his two seasons in the NBA, per Basketball-Reference

It's worth noting that these are different skills. 

Offensive rebounding is more about anticipation, lateral quickness to get around effective box-outs, jumping ability and positioning. Defensive rebounding deals more with strength, the ability to hold off opponents and, of course, positioning once more. 

Improvement in both categories is fantastic for such a young big man, and it's likely that he'll continue trending in the upward direction. Rebounding wasn't supposed to be a strength for Valanciunas, but it's become one as he's averaging 8.4 boards per game and 10.8 per 36 minutes. 

To put that in perspective, DeAndre Jordan's numbers were worse in both categories last season, and he's now pacing the Association when it comes to crashing the glass. 

Defensively, Valanciunas is also making significant strides. 

Synergy Sports (subscription required) shows that only one player is allowing fewer points per possession to roll men, and he's also been quite excellent when defending post-up players. The Lithuanian center still has work to do in isolation and when closing out spot-up shooters, but that will come with time as he becomes increasingly accustomed to the Raptors' defensive schemes and the style of NBA bigs. 

That said, individual defense was never supposed to be his forte. 

Help defense is where the big man made his mark prior to his time in the Association, and that means he should be helping out the overall Toronto defense rather significantly.

According to NBA.com, that's not the case. Once he becomes a more cerebral defender—again, he's a 21-year-old still making the leap to the Association—this will change, and Valanciunas will become more of a complete player. 

For now, the Raptors have to be content with what he's already shown. 

His work in the post has turned from a weakness into a strength, his rebounding is on the rise and his individual defense is far better than expected. 

Oh, and he's still brimming over with potential. 

Why exactly would you give up on him?


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