Can Jonas Valanciunas Be the Toronto Raptors' Playoff X-Factor?

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistApril 10, 2014

Toronto Raptors' Jonas Valanciunas (17) drives against Milwaukee Bucks' John Henson during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, April 5, 2014, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

Most of the recent news surrounding Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas hasn't been pleasant. Let's set his DUI charge aside for a moment. It would be a shame to ignore what he's actually doing on the court, especially lately.

His most recent triumph was putting up a career-high 26 points on Wednesday night, April 9, in a 124-114 win against the Philadelphia 76ers.

It's been an up-and-down year for Valanciunas, and that's par for the course when talking about a 21-year-old in just his second NBA season.

On the season, he's averaging 11.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per contest. That's a respectable line and good enough to give Raptors fans plenty of hope for the future. Much as they've historically depended on Amir Johnson to man the painted area, there's a strong case to be made that Valanciunas will be a monster there for the foreseeable future.

And along with it, a case to be made that he could develop into a consistent third option on a team led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

But for the moment, let's put the crystal ball away. There are more urgent matters at hand—namely, whether Valanciunas can make a significant impact in the postseason. He may be the difference between a deep run and spending the majority of the playoffs watching from home.

There are certainly reasons to be hopeful.

Valanciunas' low-post game has come a long way. It's still relatively straightforward (swooping in for baby-hook shots), but sometimes simplicity works. Raptors Republic's William Lou describes the attack:

His primary move is effective for two reasons. One, he has good touch around the basket and his hook is fairly soft, which gives the shot a decent chance of dropping even if it catches rim. Two, Jonas leans into his defender, keeping them ground-bound, which makes his shot hard to block (unless you’re Anthony Davis). Defenders have largely clued into Jonas’ primary move, and they’ve started to lean on his left side in an effort to take away the middle and shade him towards the baseline. Jonas likes to counter this by spinning off the pressure, and dropping a jump-hook over the defender, something that he didn’t have in his arsenal last season.

That scoring ability in the post is especially important now that Valanciunas is seeing more touches, something head coach Dwane Casey intended on happening before the season even started.

Valanciunas is indeed getting the rock more often in his sophomore campaign. His usage rate is up to 16.8, according to Hollinger's player efficiency ratings, which is up from 15.3 a year ago. He's yielded an increased overall impact as well, illustrated by his estimated wins added increasing from 3.7 to 5.7.

In short, Valanciunas is doing more, and it's paying dividends.

All the same, there are reasons to caution our optimism.

As good as Valanciunas has been lately, two of his last five games came against the Sixers and Milwaukee Bucks. Another came against the currently lackluster Indiana Pacers. The best opponent he's faced over that stretch was the Miami Heat, who—good as they are—don't have a stellar interior defender to check someone like Valanciunas.

So there are caveats to his recent play. Important ones.

Over the course of a seven-game series, teams will find ways to keep him under control. That's not to say he won't make an impact, only that his impact will likely be curbed as the opposition makes adjustments.

It's still too soon to say who Toronto will face in the first round, but you can rest assured it won't be a team eager to let a second-year center beat them around the basket. Defenders will likely collapse to the paint, looking to shut off DeRozan's driving lanes and keep Valanciunas off the low block in one fell swoop.

That could force Valanciunas to get more of his points from mid-range, where he's struggled at times.

Range will limit Valanciunas' offensive ceiling.
Range will limit Valanciunas' offensive

All the same, don't be surprised to see Valanciunas match his average. That's very doable, whatever the circumstances.

The bigger problem is what he contributes on the defensive end. SBNation's Zach Salzmann offers an in-depth profile of all that's gone wrong defensively:

While it's somewhat inevitable that Valanciunas will struggle against less traditional 5s that are able to step out and shoot from the perimeter (Casey actually put Amir on Spencer Hawes in a recent game against Cleveland to protect Jonas) he's also struggled against more traditional, physical centres. Guys like Gortat, and even Robin Lopez, have been able to use their footwork, and just sheer strength, to bully Valanciunas down low.

Given that Valanciunas could very well face Gortat in the first round, he could become an X-factor in all the wrong ways. The Raptors can't afford to have their defensive anchor give ground to strong interior scorers. In the event Toronto advanced past the first round and faced a team like the Pacers, someone like Hibbert would pose similar problems.

Valanciunas has to tighten up his defense and stand his ground for the Raptors to win the battle of the paint.

Is his offense enough to outweigh those defensive liabilities? We'll see. Valanciunas is certainly getting hot at the right time. He's giving the Raptors the opportunity to rely less exclusively on DeRozan and the perimeter game, and that will be key as games slow down in the playoffs.

It's hard to win playoff games without a post game, whether that presence is LeBron James or Dwight Howard. It can come in any number of shapes and sizes, and it can certainly look a lot like Valanciunas when he's at his best.

If he continues to be at his best in the coming weeks, watch out for Toronto. The Raptors may not be done turning heads—they may just be getting started.