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Tempering Expectations on Raptors' Jonas Valanciunas

Chandler didn't emerge as a major defensive force until later in his career, something Raptors and Jonas Valanciunas fans need to keep in mind.
Chandler didn't emerge as a major defensive force until later in his career, something Raptors and Jonas Valanciunas fans need to keep in mind.

The HQ looks at the early careers of NBA big men like Tyson Chandler and Joakim Noan in hopes of tempering expectations around Raptors' rookie Jonas Valanciunas...

On Monday our Chris Walder discussed Jonas Valanciunas.

He noted the excitement around the Lithuanian big man's arrival, and hoped expectations wouldn't be sky high for the former fifth overall pick.

Unfortunately, I think that cat is already out of the bag.

After a couple quiet games in these Olympics, I'm already hearing comments from Dino backers suggesting he's not the player we've been led to believe.

And it's true, his performance so far in London is nothing to write home about.

Four points, three rebounds and a block in 12 foul-filled minutes against Nigeria, and six points and five rebounds in a similarly foul-prone 13 minute stint in a loss to Argentina. Valanciunas hasn't been awful, but it's tough to say he's making his presence felt either.

That being said, I'm hardly concerned about this piece of the Valanciunas experience. His Lithuanian team has hardly shown much in terms of a coordinated strategy at either end of the court (although there has been a lot of "pass it to Linas" on O) and he's being hung out to dry on D a good chunk of the time.

As a result, the fouls are piling up.

That's not to say that picking up as many fouls as he is in a short period of time is completely the fault of teammates. As one of our readers mentioned, yes, Jonas has experience playing against some of the better players in the world, but in this competition, as will be the case in the NBA, he's facing some of the very best every game. This is simply going to be part of the learning process and like most big men entering the NBA, keeping the fouls to a minimum is going to be a challenge.

Again, this isn't something out of left field for me. My expectations of Valanciunas in year one were to fight foul trouble on a nightly basis but show some flashes of excellence, particularly at the defensive end of the court.

The offensive game would be extremely raw, but no different than that of many of the current NBA big men he's drawn comparisons to including Tyson Chandler, Dwight Howard, and Joakim Noah.

In fact, as I got thinking about Valanciunas, and the expectations being placed on him prior to stepping on the court for even his first NBA game, I wondered about those aforementioned three, and how long it took them to grow into the All-Star players that we now revere.

Let's take a look at their first few seasons...

Tyson Chandler: Chandler is the player Valanciunas' has drawn the most comparisons to. Sebastian Pruiti did an entire video-analysis compare of the two for Basketball Prospectus, and when age was removed from the equation, it was Chandler who came the closest to Val in 2011 in terms of Basketball Prospectus' Draft Similarity Scores.

And before we even get into the advanced metrics, it's easy to see why.

Both are of similar physical proportions, and Valanciunas, like Chandler, enters the NBA with the potential to be a dominant rebounding and shot-blocking big man.

But it's not like Chandler was an All-Star or All-Defensive team member overnight. In his first season with the Bulls he averaged about six points, four rebounds, as well as a block a contest, and it wasn't until his fourth season that he started to approach double-double status.

In fact, he didn't truly blossom until he was dealt to New Orleans and paired with point guard phenom Chris Paul, and then he really took off.

The Raptors have a better point guard situation than the Bulls had in Chandler's early seasons so that bodes well for Valanciunas' development, but the point here is that if Chandler is Valanciunas' best comp and he averaged 7.1 points and 6.5 rebounds...well.

And on top of this, Chandler wasn't a foul monster in the way many young NBA bigs are.

He averaged 2.6 fouls per 22 minutes and even extrapolated over 36 minutes, that's still only about 4.3 on average.

Compare those numbers to another similarly skilled big man like the Raptors' Amir Johnson, who averaged over six fouls a game per 36 in his first few seasons, or even Andris Biedrins, a DraftExpress compare for Val, who averaged 6.5 per 36.

Chandler's point and rebound numbers are modest even without foul trouble issues, so it's tough to expect Jonas to do much better considering what already appears to be a proclivity for picking up cheapies.

Dwight Howard: This one obviously seems a bit ridiculous considering the physical juggernaut that is Dwight, but it was indeed Howard who all in all, had the most similar draft compare scores to Valanciunas. So how did Howard make out early in his NBA career?

Well, 15 points, 12 rebounds and nearly two blocks a game aren't too shabby.

I think we can stop this one here therefore. I get the draft comps based on metrics like rebounding and shot-blocking, but much like a young Shaq, Howard's physical traits allowed him to be fairly imposing even in his first few years despite being quite raw, especially on O. Valanciunas won't have that same advantage (barring a heavy dose of Bruce Banner's Gamma Rays) so it's hard to imagine his number trending in a similar fashion to those of Howard.

Joakim Noah: Noah is another interesting comp and the other part of Draftexpress "upside" compare for Val. Noah was drafted ninth overall by the Chicago Bulls in 2007, but didn't immediately look like the dominant college player he was at Florida. In fact he averaged only eight points and eight rebounds in his first three seasons.

No one expected Noah to put up 20 a night, but considering his lock-down D and rebounding prowess, many viewed Joakim as a bit of a disappointment early on.

But by his fourth season Noah was a double-double threat on a nightly basis and a key defensive anchor on an emerging Bulls' club.

The addition of Derrick Rose certainly didn't hurt Noah's advancement, but considering Rose joined the Bulls in Noah's sophomore season and we didn't see a big jump in Joakim's numbers until year four, it's further proof that even with the right talent around him, it will probably take Val a few seasons to start to really figure it out.

Marcus Camby: And let's throw one last compare into the mix here, a former Raptor in fact. Camby entered the league with the Dinos, a 22-year old out of UMass with a penchant for blocking shots and rebounding the basketball. In his three-year college career Camby averaged nearly four blocks a game and continued this trend in the NBA, year-in-year-out being one of the league's best shot rejectors.

Camby averaged 2.5 blocks per game through his first three seasons and while those seem a tad lofty for Valanciunas, Camby's rebounding average of 6.4 boards per game over that same time period seem to be within Jonas' striking distance.

One of the major differences though in terms of these two though in my eyes is on the offensive end where Camby had a more advanced face-up game entering the league. He averaged 15 points a match in his rookie season in Toronto, a number I think Jonas will be hard-pressed to match for two key reasons; one, as noted, Jonas' offensive repertoire at present revolves almost entirely around put-backs and fast-break opportunities, and two, with much more talent around him next season, Valanciunas won't be depended upon offensively in the same way that Camby was in his first campaign.

Summary: Really, the point of this exercise wasn't to say that Valanciunas will be the next Camby or Chandler. It was to show how similarly skilled big men progress in the NBA typically, so as to try and set expectations for the Lithuanian big man come October.

I'm guessing at numbers somewhere around those of Tyson Chandler and Joakim Noah in their rookie years, that is to say about six or seven points and six or seven rebounds.

And while those aren't exactly "All-NBA" numbers, it's important to note that Jonas' contribution will be likely be felt beyond simply box score metrics. Even with their low totals in their first few seasons, players like Chandler and Noah posted excellent advanced metrics from PER (Noah was already an above average NBA player with a PER of 15.5 as a rook) to wins produced. Chandler added an average of nearly four wins (using the WP metric) to his moribund Bulls group in his first three years, Noah, nearly eight!!

So before we get too caught up in Jonas' performance, or lack thereof at these Olympic games, let's put things in perspective a bit.

We're talking about a player who just turned 20, playing for a National Team that's devoid of much NBA talent, against the world's best at his position. Considering that on average most of the big men we examined in this article took a good three seasons to start to come into their own, it's hardly reasonable to expect Jonas to dominate right from the jump.

But setting hard screens, rolling to the hoop, grabbing rebounds in traffic, protecting the rim, playing with an unbridled intensity, these are things I expect him to do from day one. It's these pieces that I'll be focused on in terms of evaluating Valanciunas, and I'm hoping the rest of Raptors' nation follows suit.