Are Toronto Raptors Making Right Move by Building Around Jonas Valanciunas?

Ben Leibowitz@BenLeboCorrespondent IIIJanuary 8, 2014

Jan 5, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) is pressured by Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Raptors have emerged as one of the NBA’s surprise teams in 2013-14 with a 16-17 record—good enough for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. They’ve improved following the trade that sent Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, but is new general manager Masai Ujiri making the correct decision by building around Jonas Valanciunas?

Before the Lithuanian big man had played a single minute in the NBA, he was earning high praise from various sources.

An NBA.com draft profile said, “He has traits of many great centers,” and Ramunas Butautas compared Valanciunas to four-time All-Star Pau Gasol.

Stephen Brotherston of Hoopsworld wrote in February 2012 that his career overseas, “should make him an early favorite in next year’s rookie-of-the-year race.”

Raptors fans had understandably high expectations for the youngster as a rookie, but he didn’t live up to the hype.

Granted, Valanciunas still had a respectable rookie campaign by averaging 8.9 points (on 55.7 percent shooting), six rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. Injuries held him back as he played in 62 of a possible 82 games. He was never legitimately considered for the Rookie of the Year award, as Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers ran away with the honor.

Despite an early letdown, the 21-year-old raised eyebrows with a dominant summer league performance in 2013, but that outburst turned out to be fool’s gold.

During the Las Vegas Summer League, Valanciunas averaged 18.8 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting 56.1 percent from the field and 87.9 percent from the free-throw line. He took home the summer league MVP award for his gaudy stats.

The double-double average was sure to make Raps fans salivate, but some underlying issues marred an otherwise dominant showing.

While Valanciunas was scoring efficiently and attacking the glass, he also averaged five turnovers and a whopping 5.8 personal fouls per game. Since players can’t foul out of summer league contests, Valanciunas was able to rack up nine personals in just 29 minutes of action against the Sacramento Kings.

Can you say, “red flag?”

Ironically, retired NBA great Arvydas Sabonis said of Jonas (per the NBA.com draft profile), "He's great in defense, and he knows how to avoid fouls." So much for that.

Not surprisingly, Valanciunas hasn’t been able to live up to the hype he generated during summer league action. He’s averaging 10.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 3.2 fouls per game this season. Foul trouble has continued to limit his development as a bright young NBA player.

Prior to the Rudy Gay trade, according to ESPN’s Marc Stein, Toronto’s management was open to trading, "'Anyone but [Jonas] Valanciunas,' says one plugged-in source." 

ESPN insider Chad Ford said, “Jonas Valanciunas and maybe Amir Johnson are the only guys they really want to keep.”

May 9, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri during the press conference naming him NBA executive of the year at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

So is Ujiri making the right choice by essentially making the young big man untouchable?

Well, the sophomore’s play as a professional hasn’t matched the hysteria—he certainly hasn’t looked like a young Pau Gasol—but, as they say, “Patience is a virtue.”

After the Gay trade, Valanciunas ripped off eight straight games scoring in double digits. That included a 16-point, 18-rebound effort against the New York Knicks (a 95-83 win).

In 14 total games since Gay got traded, Valanciunas has reached double-digit scoring 11 times. He struggled Tuesday against the Indiana Pacers, finishing with four points (on 1-of-6 shooting), five fouls and four turnovers, but he’s been much better in Gay’s absence.

Speaking of the Pacers, during Roy Hibbert’s sophomore season in the NBA, the 7’2” skyscraper averaged 11.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game.

In Al Horford’s second year as a pro for the Atlanta Hawks, he averaged 11.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.

This isn’t to say Valanciunas will morph into an exact replica of those two All-Star caliber big men down the road, but not all centers dominate when they first enter the NBA. Sometimes it takes those talents a few seasons to get their feet wet against the best competition available.

In the midst of his second NBA season, Valanciunas is still just 21 years old. He has plenty of time to work on his game and develop into an All-Star talent as a member of the Raptors, so it’s impossible to blame Ujiri for making the big man unavailable to trade suitors.

The truth of the matter is, if you were starting a franchise with an interior presence his age or younger, the list would be as follows: Anthony Davis (20), Andre Drummond (20) and Valanciunas.

Toronto’s fifth overall pick from 2011 entered the league with the weight of the world on his shoulders. And while he hasn’t reached admittedly unfair expectations, Ujiri knows not to give up on young talent too soon.