At 26 years old Jonas Valanciunas is undoubtedly entering the prime of his career.
In 2017-18, 22 players averaged 12 points and 8 rebounds at center. Out of all, JV played the least minutes(22.4) ,three less than the second lowest player(Whiteside). He has finally grown into his body, and learned to abuse smaller defenders near the basket. Using immense size(7’1 – 260lb) JV dominates the glass, either securing rebounds (21.4 TRB%), or getting second chance points off tips(73.2 contested OREB% – *7th in the league). Jonas’s steamroller strength allows him to clear out space in the paint. Coupled with a 7-6 wingspan he overcomes a lack of vertical leap by locking other bigs to floor with contact, then reaching strongly to secure the ball.
Valanciunas always had one thing over most players his size in the league, finesse. While he struggled early in his career to find spots to attack, when he did the result was lethal. Shooting above 80% his last few years JV is a top-10 center from the charity stripe, and along with Enes Kanter the only traditional back to the basket big in the top-10 for FT percentage(>20MPG).
56.8% from the field puts him 11th in the league within the same parameterization, impressive for a bigman without the athleticism of his compatriots. Jonas also shoots a much lower percentage of his shots from close range as compared to other high FG% centers(JV = 44.3% of shots taken from 0-3ft, DeAndre Jordan = 84.3%, Tyson Chandler = 93.0%, Clint Capela = 80%) making 56.8% all the more impressive.
Jonas’s productivity does not stop there. He ranked 13th in the league in WS/48, above players such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler and even Kyle Lowry. Per36 JV is top 10 at the centre position in rebounds(13.6) and points (20.4). Out of all centers JV ranked second in points per post touch(0.696), emphasizing his interior dominance. For all intents and purposes Jonas had a great 2017/18.
So the question remains, with such gaudy numbers why did Jonas average only 22 mpg last season?
While Jonas’s timing on the court has improved drastically, he couldn’t have picked a worse period to become a dominant, back to the basket big man in the NBA. His lumbering, overpowering style of play is in direct opposition to the layup or trey-up offensive schemes which all top teams utilize. Jonas’s inability to guard anywhere outside the paint makes him the automatic weak link in the defensive chain when teams play with shooters at all positions. While he remains a dominant figure on the boards, his inability to guard the perimeter causes havoc for teammates maneuvering screens and following shooters, as his unagile body is unsuited for defense that far away from the rim.
The opposing team is playing a spaced offensive lineup consisting of 5 capable three point shooters(i.e. Cleveland’s lineup with Love at the center). They are facing the Raptors, who have Jonas at the center. Due to the ability of the opposition to punish help rotations the Raptors can’t provide significant help in isolation/PnR situations, lest give up an open three to a knockdown shooter(Smith/Korver). A primary ball handler(George Hill) calls for a PnR with Jonas’s man(Love). The screen is set properly on Hill’s man (Lowry), and the ball handler gets clear sight of Jonas and the basket. The player who set the pick pops out to the three point line.
Jonas is now in a compromised position, and at the mercy of the primary ball-handler.
1.) Jonas steps up to challenge the ball-handler
This is likely the best-case scenario for the offense. Jonas isn’t in the same dimension in terms of lateral quickness as any NBA guard(except Milos Tedosic). Most PnR ball handlers can easily drive past Jonas and finish at the rim, as heavy-footed Valanciunas has trouble staying in front of most centers. If Jonas tries to switch early Hill can simply bring the ball back out and abuse the obvious defensive mismatch(guard versus lumbering big), which has produced some of our favorite highlights.
2.) Jonas backs off and protects the rim
The move for the offense is predicated on what the other defender in the action is doing. If Lowry tries to double the ball handler, Hill simply passes to Love who popped for an open three. If he stays with Love, the ball-handler has a wide open mid-range jump shot/floater, and can pass out to other players whose defenders may have collapsed inward to help.
There are a number of other variations that can occur in this situation but these are the two most prevalent outcomes. If the defense tries to double with pressure, the ball can be passed to honestly anyone and they can dissect the now broken defense. Any help provided by other players is again punished by the competent shooters on the court.
His defensive liability is not just limited to PnR action, but off-ball defense as well. Jonas was the victim of numerous off-ball screen actions implemented by Ty Lue, leading to Kevin Love’s best series of the playoffs (20.5PPG, 11.5 RPG). Any player who cannot maneuver screens, help and recover quickly to shooters, and play on-ball perimeter defense is at the mercy of a competent offensive team with three-point prowess. And unfortunately JV is one of those players.
Dwayne Casey and the 2017-18 Raptors coaching staff found this out the hard way. Game 1 Jonas was an absolute animal on the glass, grabbing a total of 21 boards in 36 minutes. And they still lost the game due to lights out shooting from deep(48% excluding LeBrons 1-8 from deep). Every successive game Jonas played less minutes, as Casey realized that his domination on the glass was not worth the chaos created on the perimeter by JV’s lack of agility/awareness. Amplifying this point is the Cavaliers shot progressively worse from deep as Jonas played less(Lebron excluded).
|Jonas Valanciunas ESCF||Minutes Played||Cavaliers 3FG%|
*Game 4 the stats are skewed due to it being over mid-way through the third(Cedi Osman played 21 minutes)
This is a common theme among all relics of the past, as even the DPOY Rudy Gobert was 29th out of 36 in defensive rating(110), fourth worst NETRTG(-16.9) in the playoffs(conference semis – min>30) and fourth worst NETRTG and defensive rating in his own starting five*.
*( Jae Crowder(-6.9, 105.2), Donovan Mitchell(-11.4, 106.5) and Joe Ingles(-13.6, 107.6).
If the DPOY is unable to have positive impact defensively what hope does Jonas Valanciunas have?
2018-19 Optimistic Player Projection:
What Jonas has is irrefutable offensive value. His size and smarts at the center position is an asset, and every night he has the ability to dominate the glass on both sides of the ball.
Jonas’s ideal scenario against teams like last years Cav’s is as follows. A second unit star, who can feast on mis-matches in the paint while teams stretched/spaced lineups rest. Stagger JV’s minutes so he lines up against Jordan Bell, Nene, Aron Baynes and Mike Muscala(or whoever the 76’ers backup center is) and literally give him the ball every possession. JV is smart enough to pass out of double teams, and his game has gotten decisive enough to where he knows when to dominate.
A FVV,Green, Miles, OG lineup provides JV the space to operate in the post, and isolate defenders below the rim to dominate the glass. His size is hard to find on most teams benches, and if he does come off the bench he is head and shoulders the best back-up center in the league. Even if JV plays only 22 mpg he is likely to increase his already absurd per36 production, due to weaker competition(played most of his minutes with starting lineup last year), and having the offense run through him.
A FVV/JV PnR with Miles and Powell spacing/Pascal lurking by the rim for lobs is death for most second units, and an exciting opportunity to improve the best bench in the league. The Raptors distanced themselves from most teams in the regular season when their second unit hit the court, and this year the mob looks even more dangerous.
2018-19 Pessimistic Player Projection:
Jonas plays <20MPG
Raptors Center’s (2017-18 Season)
After Ibaka’s absolutely terrible playoff performance at the four he should play the majority of his minutes at the center position. His inability to hang with modern wings(JR Smith, Kyle Korver) led to a number of defensive breakdowns on the perimeter, culminating in the Cavs shooting 41% from three and JR Smith shooting an absurd 76.9% from beyond the arc. Serge averaged over 27MPG last year and should be on pace to play a similar number. Even if he still takes some time at PF a conservative estimate is 15MPG @ center.
New free agent acquisition Greg Monroe is undoubtedly past his peak, and probably the worst center on the roster with Bebe gone. However, last year for the Celtics he put up 10 points and 6 rebounds, not too shabby for only 19 minutes per. While Brad “The Sorcerer” Stevens obviously played a role in his success, few would argue he is a worse player than Bebe, and should command at least Bebe’s paltry 8.5MPG. We can project Greg at a conservative 9MPG with room for growth as he is in a contract year.
With Kawhi eating the lion’s share of the SF minutes Pascal Siakam will have to find a way to get on the court, as CJ Miles will likely take the leftover minutes at the three. OG is Toronto’s second best option at the forward position and will take a leap in terms of usage this year, as his shooting + defense will be crucial to the Raptors success. In Raptors Offseason Checklist 4 I outlined a hyper-modern lineup featuring Lowry, Green, OG, Kawhi and Pascal Siakam at the 5. The switch everything, uber-aggressive, defensively versatile nature of this lineup promises utility against more spaced offensive schemes(Houston, GSW), without sacrificing offensive potency(Siakam jump-shot willing).
Pascal averaged 20 MPG last year and demands more reps as he showed promise in the 2017-18 season. He should take the leftover PF minutes OG doesn’t play, but based on last years performance that number will be rather small. If OG averages 30 MPG that leaves Pascal only 18 per without factoring Miles who played some stretch four last season, and Ibaka who will likely play some PF for Nurse. This should entice the coaching staff to give Siakam at least 8MPG at the center position(but if this line-up works how it should that number will grow).
That is a total conservative estimate of 15(Ibaka) + 9(Monroe) + 8(Siakam) = 32 minutes at the center position, leaving JV with only 16 MPG.
The Raptors have a certified log jam at the center position and JV could not have peaked at a worse time.
2018-19 Realistic Projection:
The aforementioned scenarios illustrate two pertinent themes. One, JV is a very talented offensive center and if he can find someone to guard on the defensive end of the court he is a strong option. Two, there is a log-jam at the center with numerous tantalizing options vying for minutes. A few key developments will influence how Jonas’s season fares.
Will he be able to play well at the 5.
Ibaka’s one viable excuse for last season’s playoff performance is that he was out of position. At 29 Serge is not mobile enough to hang with the multi-faceted power-forwards in the league, whose movement off-ball and shooting ability cause fits for the more traditional 4 Serge is. These worries are multiplied by the potential of having to switch-out onto a smaller guard, so Ibaka should try and play as close to the rim as possible.
Serge and JV are hard players to compare, as their entire careers are at different positions. Serge’s 1.3BPG might indicate he is a better rim protector than JV(0.9), but it’s much more complex than that. Contesting shots coming from the help side are much different than defending a physical big under the basket. Most advanced defensive metrics still have flaws in their origin stories, and those are compounded when attempting to compare two players playing different positions.
But their respective careers illustrate Serge shoots better from deep(average of 38.2% on 4 attempts per his last three seasons vs. Jonas’s first year shooting threes). JV did shoot a blistering 40% from downtown. However, the most superficial analysis indicates chicanery is afoot. Jonas only had 1 attempt per game, and anyone who watched the Raptors this season could see these shots were less of a focused offensive approach, and more of a crowd pleasing effort while the team was already up 20(only took 5 threes this postseason).
JV is undeniably the better rebounder. The statistics speak for themself. However, most high level squads sacrifice larger, more tenacious glass cleaners, in place of mobile/shooting bigs(Horford, Capela, Green etc). It seems that at the precipice of the league gang rebounding + lethal shooting/mobility is the favored choice over glass dominance and lumbering.
The battle between these two will be interesting, and a key factor in Jonas’s usage next season.
JV’s Defensive Outlook:
Summarized, JV on defense is this. A good defender(and rebounding machine) when he has someone to guard, but when he doesn’t he is a liability, and the coaching staff knows that. In the league traditional centers who only bang down low are becoming rarer and rarer, meaning JV’s defensive potential is decreasing, as he has less players to guard. This is reflected in his progressively declining MPG.
Jonas Valanciunas MPG NBA Career
The worst part about this trend is every year JV has become a better player, but his minutes still decrease.
In the 2012-13 season there were 12 centers who attempted at least 10 three-pointers. This year that number is 34. This statistic exemplifies the commonly held idea that the three-pointer is taking over every position, including center. Even players with established post-games (Embiid, Jokic, Marc Gasol) have adopted the three-point shot as another facet of their offensive attack(all attempted at least 200 last season).
So what we see is this, as three-pointers become more prevalent in the center position, they become more important to guard. If a player(JV) cannot guard three-pointers, they put their team(Raptors) at a significant disadvantage defensively, and subsequently sit (see above).
The worrying trend for all Jonas fans is this, three point shooting isn’t just staying its growing. The implication of this trend is JV is more likely to sit, as perimeter defense for someone JV’s size is something very challenging to develop at 26. Because of this, Jonas projects to play even less minutes this year than last.
His lack of perimeter defense, coupled with the log-jam at center put serious stress on the coaching staff to find him minutes. Does he provide value when he is on the court, no question. However, that value will be decreasing every year the three pointer becomes a more integral factor in the league, which is likely every season for at least the next decade.
If you were Nick Nurse how would you implement JV in the Raptors scheme. Keep him starting at center and take boards over perimeter defense? Bring him off the bench and watch him dominate lesser players? Who gets the short end of the stick in the rotation? JV? Siakam? Serge? Do we bench Monroe all year? Comment below and share your thoughts. Thanks for reading.