Is this it? Is this finally the year?
Toronto Raptors fans have had the highest of hopes for Jonas Valanciunas since he was selected fifth overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. He has certainly been a serviceable big man in three years with the team -- averaging 10.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per contest, while shooting 55.3 percent from the field over 223 career games -- but he has yet to become the big impact center that many were expecting him to be by now.
Going into the 2015-16 season, though, all the pieces are in place for that long-awaited breakout to finally happen.
First of all, he's going to be paid like an impact player. Back in late August, the Raptors and Valanciunas agreed to an extension worth $64 million over four years. The deal will come into effect during the 2016-17 season and last until 2019-20, when Valanciunas has a player option.
With an average annual salary of $16 million, JV is currently set to become the team's highest-paid player next year (although that will likely change once they figure out what they're doing with DeMar DeRozan). Financially, the Raptors seem more committed to him as a franchise cornerstone than ever; but will that commitment extend to the basketball court?
Last season, Valanciunas played and started in 80 games. He posted a career high in scoring with 12.0 points per contest, adding 8.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks, while shooting 57.2 percent from the floor and 78.6 percent from the free throw line.
He did all that in a mere 26.2 minutes per contest, though, including an average of only 5.1 fourth-quarter minutes (the ninth-highest mark on the whole team). There were even 23 games in which Valanciunas didn't see the floor for a single second of the game's final frame.
Coach Dwane Casey, much to the chagrin of many Raptor fans, has displayed a lack of trust in Jonas when it has come to those late-game situations, preferring to go small instead. As Casey himself explains, however, that could all change this year (via TSN's Josh Lewenberg):
"You know, there's been a lot made about [Valanciunas] finishing games. Well, he's getting to the point of his career, with the experience, that he should be able to do that."
"We plan to use him, especially offensively, down the stretch. Father Time is a great teacher and developer [in] those kinds of situations."
And the fans rejoiced.
If the team does commit to using Valanciunas more, he could have the opportunity to shine through and make the league take notice of his star potential this season.
His per-36 numbers from last year of 16.5 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks read like those of an All-Star. From an efficiency standpoint, he was arguably one of the best centers in the league as well.
In 306 post-up scenarios in 2014-15, Valanciunas scored 1.02 points per possession (PPP), good enough for the 88th percentile. For an idea of just how impressive that level of efficiency is, he's the only player in the top-70 in post-up possessions to score more than a point per possession. He worked great as a roll man in pick-and-roll situations as well, scoring 1.12 PPP in his 76 attempts. That's good enough for the 78th percentile among all NBA players.
As for the defensive end, JV was among the best bigs in the league at protecting the rim last season. On the 8.1 attempts he faced per game within five feet of the rim, he held opponents to a stingy shooting mark of 46.5%. We don't really think of Valanciunas as an elite defender when it comes to his footwork, but his rim protection numbers suggest that he might be better on that end than people realize.
Of course, as impressive as Valanciunas' efficiency numbers were last year, he is not a perfect basketball player. He still displays a frustrating level of indecisiveness on offense (oh, the pump fakes), gets lost at times on defense, and runs into foul trouble a little too often. The thing to remember, though, is that he is still only 23 years old. He might have three years of NBA experience under his belt, but he's still at a young enough age that he deserves a bit of forgiveness and patience for his not being a franchise center just yet.
The potential to be one, however, is just as present now as it ever was. He's a versatile and efficient offensive player, and is developing into a defensive presence. With the new deal, the team's turnover in personnel, and the promise of more minutes (and subsequently more touches), there are plenty of reasons to think that Jonas Valanciunas is on the verge of a breakout this season.
For real this time.