At the end of last summer, Raptors fans seemed sure of one thing: Jonas Valanciunas was the future of the franchise -- a beacon of hope amidst the uncertainty and (warranted) cynicism regarding the team's outlook for the coming season. DeMar DeRozan was overpaid and frustratingly one-dimensional; Kyle Lowry was temperamental trade fodder; and Rudy Gay was a cap-clogging, floor clogging gunner who made his team too mediocre to grab a playoff spot, but not bad enough to perform at a Sam Hinkie standard of tank-tastic ineptitude.
But the development of Jonas Valanciunas would make the Raptors worth tuning in for -- regardless of whether another 30-win season was on the cards. Sure, Jerryd Bayless once won Summer League MVP, but Jonas dominated the competition in Vegas. 18 points and 10 boards per game -- and a newly crafted physique -- had media types and fans (those of us masochistic enough to watch Summer League) salivating over the big Lithuanian.
But something funny has happened this season: The Raptors' overall stock is up, but Valanciunas' stock seems to have fallen.
Post December 8th, the cynicism and negativity surrounding the Raptors has evaporated, replaced by a real sense of excitement; excitement created by a fantastic team effort, the All Star-caliber play of Lowry and DeRozan, and the promising development -- particularly defensively -- of Terrence Ross. At the time of writing, the Raptors are 7 games over .500, 3rd in the Eastern Conference, and coming off one of their best wins of the season against the uber-talented Golden State Warriors. The playoffs can't come soon enough.
Contrast those good feelings, however, to the current discourse surrounding Valanciunas -- again, seen by many prior to the season, as the lone bright spot for the Raps. Ever-so-slowy, Jonas is becoming a bit of a proverbial whipping boy for Raps fans.
During the opening 18 game horror-show that proved to be the end of the Rudy-era, fans were practically screaming at Dwane Casey to get Jonas more involved in the offense. He was a bit-part player in the offense, for sure; like the fans, a dispirited observer to the iso-ball on display. Since December 8th, however, Jonas hasn't developed as some thought he might with the departure of Gay -- a guy who used 30% of the Raptors possessions when he was on the floor.
While at times it would be nice for Casey to give Jonas a slightly longer leash, it's been hard not to empathize with the coach's decision to bench his young big-man for large portions of games. No one could argue, for instance, that Valanciunas deserved to see more time during the recent triple-overtime loss to the Wizards -- he was awful prior to his benching, and he was awful when Casey was forced to put him back in as everyone and their brother fouled out.
But while Valanciunas has had an especially rough time of late (just 7 points per game in his last 10 outings), his overall offensive numbers aren't indicative of a player who's regressed since his rookie year. Per 36 minutes he's putting up virtually the same points per game stats as he did during his first season -- although his field-goal percentage is down, possibly due to the fact that he's taking more shots in general (8.1, up from 5.9), and more shots further away from the basket. But Valanciunas' rebounding numbers are substantially better this season. He's averaging 2.5 rebounds per game more than last season, and those numbers hold true per 36 minutes as well.
Valanaciunas has had some good offensive performances this season, and although it goes without saying that his post moves need some refinement -- and he absolutely needs to develop a reliable jump-shot -- the makings are there for a more than solid offensive game. Although his screen setting still leaves a little to be desired, Jonas rolls well to the rim and has shown that he can finish on the pick-n-roll.
But offense hasn't really been the main issue for Valanciunas this season -- it certainly hasn't been the reason why Casey's decided to finish so many games with an Amir Johnson-Patrick Patterson front-court, or one of those two as the sole big-man in a small-ball lineup. Defense has been the major issue for Valanciunas in his sophomore year, particularly his defense in the two-man game.
Against the Wizards last week Valanciunas looked lost against the John Wall-Marcin Gortat pick-n-roll; and, as he has numerous times this season, he became too much of a liability for Casey to leave on the floor. And while it's somewhat inevitable that Valanciunas will struggle against less traditional 5s that are able to step out and shoot from the perimeter (Casey actually put Amir on Spencer Hawes in a recent game against Cleveland to protect Jonas) he's also struggled against more traditional, physical centres. Guys like Gortat, and even Robin Lopez, have been able to use their footwork, and just sheer strength, to bully Valanciunas down low. The Raptors have also given up far too many offensive rebounds in recent weeks, and part of that responsibility falls on the Raptors young big-man.
All is not doom and gloom, however -- far from it. Learning to play good defense in the NBA is much more of a process, particularly at the centre position. The problem, as it pertains to Valanciunas this season, is that the Raps are in a position where they're trying to win games right now. If the team was merely playing out the season, looking ahead to the draft lottery -- like so many Eastern Conference teams are -- Casey might be inclined to let Valanciunas play through some really rough stretches, letting the chips fall where they may. But the Raptors, contrary to expectations just a few months ago, are playing for home-court advantage in the post-season. As much as Casey talks about maintaining a balance between developing his young players, and trying to win basketball games, the latter is absolutely taking priority. The leash can only be so long.
But while Valanciunas' ups and downs have been frustrating, especially in the context of a fantastic season for the Raps, it's important to keep in perspective how other, currently well-established NBA big-men, faired in their early seasons in the NBA. Jonas' season thus far, is comparable to the sophomore efforts from guys like Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert, and Tyson Chandler -- all players who've gone on to make an All-Star team.
Of course, some may want to compare Jonas to Andre Drummond, a second-year man putting up some ridiculous numbers -- but Drummond may turn out to be a once-in-a generation type talent. And while we can all curse-out Bryan Colangelo for not taking a chance on him, it's a little unfair to compare Jonas to someone who looks set to be a 7 or 8-time All-Star. If Valanciunas turns out to be a guy who makes a couple All-Star games, putting up 15 and 10 on a nightly basis, and anchors the team with solid defense, that'll be a pretty nice return for the Raps -- especially considering the development of DeRozan into a bonafide All-Star and team leader.
It's been an up-and-down year for Jonas so far, and many of us have wanted to see a little more from a guy who looked great in pre-season and who, let's not forget, was a top-5 draft pick. But big-men time take to develop and Jonas is most certainly a work in progress. Amidst all the euphoria surrounding the Raps right now, it might be wise to have a little patience and take a few deep breaths when it comes to Mr. Valanciunas.