With apologies to Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the most important player on the 2013-14 Toronto Raptors is Jonas Valanciunas, and it's not even close. On a team full of cheap penny stocks, Valanciunas is as blue chip as Disney. Heading into his second season, the development of the 21-year-old centre will determine the team's future more than anything else.
By almost any measure, Valanciunas's rookie season was a success. He improved steadily, averaging 13 points and 6.6 rebounds on nearly 60% shooting over the last two months of the season. He made the All-Rookie 2nd Team and endeared himself to fans with his constant hustle and emphatic hand clapping after even the most minor of plays.
The offseason has been similarly encouraging, with Valanciunas dominating Las Vegas Summer League en route to MVP honours and serving as a key contributor to Lithuania's entry at Eurobasket.
As an added bonus, Valanciunas has bucked the trend of misleading "He's in the best shape of his life!" stories by, you know, actually looking like he's in the best shape of his life. He's shaved his head, grown out his beard and got a wolf tattoo. He now looks more like a relative of Leif Ericson than a basketball player.
Valanciunas is certainly the most highly regarded young player the Raptors have employed since Chris Bosh, and expectations coming into this season are very high, both from fans and the coaching staff. "He [Valanciunas] has developed into the type of player that we can go to on a consistent basis far more than we did last year," Dwane Casey told the Toronto Sun in July. "He's going to get his big portion of the offence run through him, around him, not only just to score out of the low post, but to quarterback."
A consensus is emerging that this could be a breakout season for Valanciunas. If it's going to happen, here are three areas to keep an eye on:
1. Cut down on those fouls
You can't do much if you're not on the court. Valanciunas committed 4.6 fouls per 36 minutes last season, good (or bad?) enough for ninth in the league. Fortunately for Raptors fans, this is a fixable problem. Many of Valanciunas's fouls are of the "good" variety, caused by problems of positioning and timing, not lack of effort. These aren't lazy karate chops caused by a lack of attention to detail.
It would also be nice to see Dwane Casey loosen up on the immediate removal of a player after picking up two early fouls. Studies have indicated that coaches can be too conservative when it comes to foul trouble; somewhat paradoxically, they deal with the possibility of a player being removed from the game by removing him from the game. If Valanciunas can cut down on his foul rate, it would likely be best to keep him in the game even with two early fouls.
2. Expand the offensive repertoire
There's a lot to like about Valanciunas on the offensive end, although the team scored 3.4 points per 100 possessions more with him on the bench, per 82games.com. As Valanciunas improves on offence and the team finds new ways to integrate him I expect those numbers to change. He's a great free throw shooter for a big man (79% last year), and has both a soft touch around the basket and good hands, ranking in the top 10 among centres in field goal percentage in both the restricted area and on midrange jumpers, per NBA.com. Perhaps most impressively, he ranked fourth on those tricky shots that come in the paint but outside the restricted area, ones that are too close for a jumper but too far for a dunk.
If last season was any indication, most of Valanciunas's offence is going to come out of the pick-and-roll, where he excels in diving hard to the rim, Tyson Chandler-style. Valanciunas's activity as a roll man has two benefits: Not only does he usually get open, but defenders are often sucked into the paint to help out, leaving open shooters along the perimeter.
No one is asking Valanciunas to turn into the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon, but he suffers from a somewhat predictable low post game. Valanciunas's favourite move is a sweeping hook across the middle of the lane, one that falls into the "not pretty but surprisingly effective" category. Later in the season and in summer league Valanciunas has shown off an improved left hand, adapting his running hook to the left side and showing the ability to spin baseline and drop in a soft lefty shot. Valanciunas should take some pointers from Pau Gasol, whose left hand sometimes seems even better than his right.
On a positive note, Valanciunas has one of the most unique and effective shot fakes in the game. Unlike many players whose fakes look nothing like their actual shot, Valanciunas has perfected the art of deception: He bends his knees, brings the ball above his head and does everything but release it. Oh, and if he doesn't get you with the first fake he'll keep on trying. Just ask Emeka Okafor:
3. Continued improvement as a rebounder/defender
Valanciunas isn't Dennis Rodman, but he's far from Andrea Bargnani. Among players who logged at least 1,000 minutes at forward/centre last season, Valanciunas finished 24th out of 38 in rebounding percentage, snagging just under 15% of available rebounds. For a point of comparison, he was slightly better than Brook Lopez and a bit worse than Roy Hibbert. He didn't stand out on either the offensive or defensive boards, falling in a similar range on both metrics.
It seems unlikely that Valanciunas will ever become an elite rebounder at the Dwight Howard/Kevin Garnett level, but there's no reason to think he can't inch closer to the top 10. Pau Gasol, a player with a similar physical profile to Valanciunas, posted a career-best rebounding percentage of 17.1 in 2009-10, a mark that would have been 11th best last season. If Valanciunas can get close to that level his value will only increase.
On the defensive side, opposing teams scored at an almost identical rate whether Valanciunas was on or off the floor, per Basketball Reference. He struggled a bit against opposing centres, allowing a PER of 17.3. Valanciunas often found himself out of position against bigger players due to a lack of strength.
With great length and a seemingly inexhaustible work effort, Valanciunas seems primed to become a quality individual and team defender as he gains experience.
Outside of a LeBron-type superstar, a two-way centre might be the most valuable asset in the league. Under the new "designated player" clause of the collective bargaining agreement, the Raptors could offer Valanciunas a five-year contract extension after the 2013-14 season, similar to the recent John Wall extension and rumored deals for Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins.
If Toronto chooses not to extend Valanciunas he will become a restricted free agent after the 2015-16 season and surely attract a max offer. If that seems a bit rich, remember that Roy Hibbert received a four-year, $58 million offer sheet from the Trail Blazers as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2012, an offer that was quickly matched by Indiana.
Hibbert got that offer after his fourth season, in which he averaged about 13 points and nine rebounds per game with a PER of just over 19; very solid, but hardly overwhelming. After a dominant defensive performance in last year's playoffs, though, that Hibbert contract looks perfectly reasonable. There's a good chance Valanciunas's fourth season could match or exceed what Hibbert did, and he'd be a year younger than Hibbert was at the time.
Absent a major injury or unforeseen circumstances, a max contract offer is in Valanciunas's future, whether it comes from Toronto or another team. If the young centre can continue to improve in the three areas mentioned above, it's likely Masai Ujiri will be at the head of a long line of GMs willing to hand out one of those precious contracts. I'd bet on a breakout season for Valanciunas; if not, the Raptors' cupboard of good young talent will be all but bare.