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The Stunted Growth of Jonas Valanciunas

The Toronto Raptors big man matured very slowly in 2014-15. Are the flashes he’s shown enough to warrant an extension?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When Bryan Colangelo drafted Jonas Valanciunas with the fifth overall pick in the 2011 draft, he was deemed a long-term project. We’re now four years into that project and this year, for the first time in that span, Valanciunas’ growth has stunted. The stagnated offensive numbers between 2013-14 and 2014-15 tell that story.

2013-14 11.3 8.8 0.7 0.9
2014-15 12.0 8.7 0.5 1.2

Statistically, Valanciunas’ biggest jump has been in true shooting percentage. Last season, it was 57.9% and second on the team among rotation players behind Amir Johnson. This year, it’s 62.3% and the highest on the team. That positive growth hasn't been rewarded with touches, though, which leads into the first of three reasons behind Jonas’ impeded growth.

Valanciunas is severely under-utilized

Dwane Casey’s current offensive system doesn't utilize Valanciunas as a primary weapon very often. He is, as the numbers above suggest, the team’s most efficient player on that end. Yet his usage is painfully low, at a rate of 19.3%. Here’s the comparison of true shooting percentage among the five Raptors with the highest usage rates.

Player USG% TS%
DeMar DeRozan 28.4 51
Lou Williams 27.0 56
Kyle Lowry 25.4 53
Greivis Vasquez 19.8 51
Jonas Valanciunas 19.1 62

All these shot-happy guards are responsible for feeding the big man, but on many possessions they make up their mind to "get theirs". Often, despite position, Valanciunas gets completely ignored. Here, against Houston, he has position directly underneath the basket, but DeRozan looks him off.

Just like Bruno and Bebe need D-League minutes to grow into NBA players, Valanciunas is an NBA player who needs the ball to gain an elite level of offensive comfort and efficient use of time. Which leads into…

Valanciunas can be more decisive on offense

We’ve reached the point in Valanciunas' career where we can ask more of him on the offensive end. The famous Jonas Pump Fake, which I wrote about last summer, still pops its head up once in a while. That pump fake, though, is more a sign of indecision than a useless tool, as many defenders do bite on it (for some reason).

The bigger issue at hand is this: Jonas is on a team that works best with a free-flowing offense, but his touches often stop the ball. If he can get into his moves more quickly, it opens up shot clock for second and third options in the offense.

The moves he's shown include his right-handed hook, which many NBA bigs struggle to stop. When mobile defenders like Marcin Gortat take away his right hand, though, Valanciunas has turned over his left shoulder for a decent fade-away jump shot. This is a great move and I’d love to see more of it going forward.

In the Raptors pick and roll offense, Jonas still needs to improve in making jump shots from open areas. Here, in Game 3 of the Washington Wizards series, he’s given the ball with an opportunity to stop and take a free throw line jump shot. Instead, he drives into three defenders, where he’s called for an offensive foul.

Also, with Amir Johnson possibly on the way out, Jonas will have to improve at finding open areas on the court, acting as a safety net for trapped guards, then making an open jump shot. Here, in Game 2, he does just that.

All these flashes show Valanciunas can be a more diverse big man than what many of his dribble-heavy possessions indicate. This is not necessarily a must for Valanciunas, but there are still signs that his upside is higher than, say, Nikola Pekovic. The necessary improvements in his game must come on the other end.

Valanciunas needs to improve his defensive awareness

In a playoff series where teams have the opportunity to scout every player, weaknesses are exposed. Jonas’ weakness in pick and roll defense was abused repeatedly by the Wizards last week, but many other NBA teams have taken advantage of JV’s slow feet as well. Here’s the prototypical example, where Jonas switches to a guard, doesn't cut off the passing lane, then gives up an open look for his man.

Dwane Casey and the coaching staff also often lamented his lack of rim protection this season, though he is still fairly good at going up vertically. You can’t teach jumping ability, but Jonas can improve his defense with decisiveness as well. Understanding where his man is, what scheme the team is in, these are all areas in which Valanciunas can improve.

What do we make of him?

Okay. Let’s not forget that Jonas Valanciunas is 22 years old. When you put him next to Terrence Ross, the flashes above show that, as a third-year player, he can eventually develop into an All-Star. Age brings many things - his offense can diversify, his defensive awareness can improve, and his mental makeup will get a boost (the constant arm-flapping for foul calls will hopefully die off). Given all this, one argument says it would be foolhardy not to resign him and see how it all plays out.

On the other hand, the point can be made that Valanciunas is part of a dying breed. Slow, powerful big men are a commodity many NBA teams choose to go without, favouring lanky, athletic players who can defend all over the court. The future looks more like Anthony Davis and less like Al Jefferson. Do you want to commit to a player that modern NBA offenses are designed to expose?

After seeing his growth slow in 2014-15, there are more question marks around Jonas Valanciunas than ever before. Whether that’s enough to deny him an extension is yet to be determined, a decision I don’t envy Masai Ujiri for having to make.

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