The Toronto Raptors have an all-star in DeMar DeRozan. They have a top 10 electric, tough, stat-filling point-guard in Kyle Lowry. And yet, it is clear to me that neither of these players hold the keys to the Raptors’ future title hopes moving forward.
Jonas Valanciunas is coming off a relatively strong second year campaign, in which he averaged 11.3 PPG and 8.8 rebounds, while shooting 53% from the field, 76% from the line, and averaging nearly one block per game. Overall, his stats were good enough to make him approximately a top 15 center, according to TPR by CBS (a pretty accurate depiction). While this is satisfying, the comparison with the rest of the league is going to stop there. The guy just finished his second year, and is 21 years old. A more fair comparison would be looking at other second year centres in the past that might be comparable.
As you can see, he stacks up pretty evenly with some stand-out centers.
JV’s success shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise for Raps fans. He came to the NBA with accolades such as LKL MVP, All Eurocup First-team, Eurocup Rising star, Lithuanian Basketball Player of the year, LKL All-Star MVP, FIBA European Championship MVP, and more. Point being – this guy had high expectations from Raptors fans coming into the NBA. The problem was, people expected him to dominate immediately when that simply wasn’t in the cards for the rook.
Centers take the longest out of any position to develop. Top that off with the fact that he’s a Euro that never played college ball before he came here added to the learning curve for JV. But, his development was evident this past season, and more clearly, in the playoffs. The best indicator of JV’s potential was his game 1 playoff performance. He put up 17 points and 18 rebounds in his first ever playoff game, and pretty much single-handedly kept the Raps in it.
I say JV is the Raps’ most important piece moving forward because he has a chance to be their best player at the thinnest position in the NBA. DeRozan is phenomenal, however high-scoring shooting guards aren’t exactly irreplaceable. Lowry is also incredible, however there are plenty of other incredible point guards out there. I’m not undermining these two in any way as they are both vital – the point is, Valanciunas can be the difference maker for this franchise. I can’t name many big men in the league that I would rather have right now. Andre Drummond, DeMarcus Cousins, and Derrick Favors are really the only centers in the league right now that project to be top-tier a few years from now.
What does that mean? JV can in that handful of elite, dominant centers. Having that type of player is a luxury, and would pretty much be exactly what the doctor is ordering for the Raptors to move forward. Ultimately, if Valanciunas develops into a perennial all-star, the Raptors will be championship contenders in the near future.
An interesting figure is that while most players have uniform stats in both wins and losses, Valanciunas performs much better when the Raptors win. His stats bump up to approximately 13 and 10, and I really don’t think it’s a coincidence.
The development of Jonas Valanciunas will be the determining factor with regards to how this team fares in the future. After a surprisingly successful 2013-14 campaign, the organization has to feel good about the fact that their most valuable piece hasn’t even scratched the surface yet. While Valanciunas is still relatively raw, there are certain skills he has that you simply can’t teach. His soft hands, finishing ability, and rebounding instincts are some advantages JV was born with. If he can improve his awareness on both ends, add an offensive move aside from his signature pump-fake, and get stronger he will set himself up to anchor the defense and become a go to option inside the paint – two areas the Raptors desperately need help with.
The fact that he’s working with Hakeem Olajuwon this summer may be the best news Raptors fans can hear aside from Lowry returning. His progress has been a sight for sore eyes, however adding to his offensive arsenal will be what allows him to take the next step.
When asked about what what he thinks his ceiling is in terms of a player comparison, his response was as good as it gets.