Yup, it’s that time of the year. Get your Itty Bitty Ballers ready, because the Jonas Valanciunas preseason hype vessel takes no prisoners. Welcome aboard.
This should be a familiar journey for most of you. A certain, very passionate, group of Toronto’s fanbase has been prophesying Valanciunas’ stardom for as long as he’s been in the league. Through six seasons, that stardom has never materialized. I’ve never believed it would happen. In fact, as recently as last November, I thought the prudent move would be to trade him for assets. I thought Jakob Poeltl was the ideal big man for the starting lineup we had.
Midway through December, though, my mind began to change.
From the 10th of December to the 13th, Jonas Valanciunas made a three-pointer in three consecutive games. This was a pretty big deal. He’d only made two three-pointers in his entire career before that stretch. Suddenly a new element to his game, he went on to attempt 66 threes in the last 55 games of the season, hitting them at a 40.5% rate for the year.
His transformation into a stretch-five was just the first step in winning me over. With the dust finally settled on what has been a chaotic offseason for the Raptors, I think it is clear that Jonas Valanciunas has been catapulted into the most favourable situation of his career. Entering his seventh season, this year presents itself as his greatest opportunity.
Why this year is different:
There are three things that have stood in Valanciunas’ way since the beginning of his career: defence, minutes, and usage. All three of those obstacles were addressed in some way this offseason.
In my last article, I described how Norman Powell is a direct beneficiary of DeMar DeRozan’s departure. I think Jonas Valanciunas also stands to benefit.
With the exception of last season (11.2 net rating), the Toronto Raptors’ starting lineups have always had average-terrible net ratings. Looking at the 2013-2017 seasons, our starting lineup at one point had a -8.8 net rating (2016-2017), and was never better than a 3.3 net rating (2013-2014). This is due, at least in part, to the fact that DeRozan and Valanciunas struggled to co-exist at the defensive end. Both of them are overwhelmingly net-negative defenders, and were frequently targeted by opposing players. In this league, it is already difficult enough to try and hide one player on defence; hiding two players at once is almost impossible.
Ex-coach Dwane Casey always understood this. As much as he did have shortcomings when it came to deploying Valanciunas (more on that later), the lineup fit was always going to be very awkward. For years, many of Casey’s detractors pointed to the fact that Valanciunas deserved more minutes, but that would never have worked with DeRozan playing 35-plus minutes per game. The most effective solution Casey found was last year; where he gave Valanciunas a career-low 22 minutes per game, but a career-high 22.7 usage percentage (USG%). Using Jonas in shorter, more concentrated, bursts against specific matchups allowed him and DeRozan to co-exist to some extent.
But DeMar DeRozan is gone now. After Valanciunas, the new, presumed, starting lineup features Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, and OG Anunoby. Every one of those four players is a fantastic help defender. It will be much easier to hide Valanciunas’ defensive lapses now that we are no longer concerned about DeRozan’s. This should allow Jonas to play more minutes.
Dwane Casey vs. Nick Nurse
Valanciunas is a wonderfully talented offensive player. He is a 30-plus minute per game type of player at the offensive end. Percentages describe him as one of the most effective post-up players in the league (53.5%), as well as a very strong interior finisher (63.3%). He has long been one of the best big men from mid-range, and he’s by far the best rebounder at both ends that this team has. He has shown that he can singlehandedly take over a game, having had 32 games in his career where he’s scored at least 20 points and grabbed at least 10 rebounds. Until last year, though, it felt like Dwane Casey had no idea how to use him. At times, it felt like the only way for Jonas to touch the ball was to grab an offensive rebound.
The hiring of Nick Nurse as head coach, however, could change everything for Valanciunas. He’s described as a highly inventive offensive coach; the polar opposite of Dwane Casey. Beyond that, Nurse and Valanciunas have worked together closely for many years, and Nurse has already spoken very positively about the relationship. Jonas has done the same. I can’t claim to know what Nurse is cooking up in his mind, but it is almost certain that we will see a more involved Valanciunas at the offensive end. With more minutes and a much more solidified role in the offence, I expect to see Jonas Valanciunas’ best season yet. The hurdles that have slowed him for the past six years are gone, but so are his excuses. He needs to take advantage of this new situation.
What will he average this year?
Will Valanciunas average 22/14 (points/rebounds) and make the all-star team? Probably not. The Raptors don’t even need that kind of production from him. Him averaging even, say, 17/10 on last year’s efficiency would be invaluable. I won’t try to make a prediction, because there are still a lot of variables that we can’t account for. Is Valanciunas’ three-point shooting for real? How much will Kawhi demand the ball? How many shots will we be using to nurture the development of our young players? Etc.
There are some things, though, that we can feel reasonably certain about. We know that despite his best efforts, Jonas Valanciunas’ limitations will still hurt us in the pick-and-roll. Surrounding him with four great defenders is ideal, but it’s not infallible. At some point, there’s just no avoiding it.
We also know that this upcoming season is going to be the most important and exciting one in Raptor’s history. We know that Jonas Valanciunas, now the longest tenured Raptor, will play a sizeable role in how far this team goes.
And one last thing that we can be reasonably certain about; the Jonas Valanciunas preseason hype vessel will find yet another gear next year. It always does.