Despite ending their season with an agonizing first-round loss at home in Game 7 against the Brooklyn Nets, the Toronto Raptors have a lot to look forward to. DeMar DeRozan is young and getting better, Kyle Lowry (once he’s re-signed) is a franchise point guard, there’s future cap flexibility and a fun first-round draft pick in 2016 courtesy of the hapless New York Knicks.
But no reason to smile looms larger (literally and figuratively) than Jonas Valanciunas, the team’s prized 7'0" center who turned 22 just two days after Paul Pierce swatted Toronto’s season to the ground.
For the most part, Valanciunas’ very first playoff series was a successful coming-out party. In just 28.8 minutes per game (foul trouble kept that number from being higher), he averaged 10.9 points and 9.7 rebounds, shot 63.3 percent from the floor and kept his PER right at a league-average level.
He opened the series with three straight double-doubles (42 points and 42 rebounds in total). It was a flash of brilliance from a growing talent who has the potential to dominate; nearly all of his influence came outside any set plays or designed scheme by Toronto’s coaching staff.
Then, sadly, Valanciunas fell off a cliff. He was a no-show in Game 7, scoring three points and grabbing five rebounds in just 27 minutes. His turnover percentage for the entire series was an insufferable 24.5 percent; Valanciunas looked like an infant first discovering gravity’s physical restrictions, barreling into defenders with his massive body. It was reckless but can easily be corrected.
But this series wasn’t about the problems. It's about the gradual growth Valanciunas has shown since being taken with the fifth overall pick in the 2011 draft. (He began playing professional basketball in his native Lithuania as a 16-year-old, and stayed there an extra year after being drafted by Toronto.) Expectations are understandably high given his size, solid two-way skill and age.
Valanciunas has an entire career to get better and, for Toronto’s sake, maybe become a perennial All-Star. According to RealGM, he plans to work with Hakeem Olajuwon this summer, a horse whisperer for big guys.
Here’s Bleacher Report’s Jim Cavan writing on why this is so important:
Valanciunas is exactly the kind of player you want working with Olajuwon: young enough for the tutorial to have a tangible impact, but skilled enough to understand the nuances of movement required to develop a truly effective low-post repertoire.
Following a stellar showing by Valanciunas in last year's Las Vegas Summer League, the expectations were for a monumental leap in his second year. It didn't quite turn out that way, but the Lithuanian center showed enough improvement to reinforce his All-Star potential—even if it winds up being a year deferred.
The Raptors will be overjoyed if Valanciunas develops flawless footwork and grows a beautifully scented bouquet of unstoppable back-to-the-basket flowers.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Valanciunas accounted for about half of all Toronto’s post-ups in the first round, and his 0.79 points per possession ranked above average. During the regular season, he shot an impressive 48.7 percent on post-ups, and it accounted for 32 percent of his offense.
He made an impressive 58.2 percent of 158 hook-shot attempts during the season and is in the beginning stage of molding an unguardable runner with either hand.
More important than whether he can crack the top five on a “Smoothest Post Moves Power Ranking,” though, is whether he can master the ideal skill set every 35-minute center needs in today’s NBA. He must rebound on both ends, protect the rim without fouling, defend in space, rotate correctly on the back line and either become Godzilla on rolls to the rim or establish a consistent mid-range jumper for pick-and-roll/pop situations (the ability to create plays—i.e., smart decisions as a passer—as a release valve on pick-and-rolls is an added bonus).
Valanciunas already possesses a few of these elements. He’s a very good rebounder, as a majority of relevant statistics—some provided by SportVU—suggest based on how he often dominated Brooklyn’s front line.
He wrapped up the seven-game effort by grabbing 61.3 percent of his 15.9 rebound chances per game. (This basically means whenever a missed shot bounced at least an arm’s length away, it ended up stuck between Valanciunas’ palms 61.3 percent of the time.)
Once he combines all that strength and size with consistent purpose (aka less recklessness) there’s almost nothing an opposing team can do to prevent Valanciunas from having his way on the boards. And opposing centers already have such a difficult time finding success against him in the post. (Valanciunas held them to just 38.8 percent on post-up shots this season.)
The journey from perpetual lottery-bound laughing stock to title contender is a rough, frustrating and difficult one. The Raptors are smack dab in the middle, with a lot of baggage in their rearview mirror and even more road to cover.
Valanciunas is a vital puzzle piece, and that’s a good thing. His room for improvement could fit inside a warehouse, and if he properly identifies, then masters one or two aforementioned areas of the game all good centers need in their arsenal, Toronto will have an absolute monster working on their behalf for the next decade.
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