Since coming back from a broken bone in his hand, Jonas Valanciunas has played in ten games for the Raptors. In those contests, he's put up 10.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. He's also managed to double his career assist average from 0.7 to 1.5 during that stretch. It's a small sample size, but that statistic alone is worth appreciating.
In last night's Nets game, a 112-100 Raptors win, you'd be excused for not making much of Valanciunas' performance after three quarters. The score sat at 91-90 when he checked back into the game with 9:17 to go in the fourth. At that moment, Jonas had a line of six points, nine rebounds (five offensive), a turnover and three fouls; he would not score again in the game. What happened next shouldn't surprise you. As with the last two Raptors' seasons, the stars of the show were Kyle Lowry, and his seemingly impossible 31 points on 13 shots, and DeMar DeRozan, who had another impressive 30-point complete game.
"It's how they score," said coach Dwane Casey before the game. "Kyle and DeMar, no matter where they are or who they are, they're high usage players. That's why our assists numbers are down. How they score, I don't think we'll ever be a high assist team with those guys being our go-to guys because they create off the dribble pretty well. We're efficient offensively, top five or whatever it is, so it's a different way of scoring but we've never told anyone else not to contribute offensively."
The question, then, is where and how does Jonas fit in?
First, the defense. For the final six minutes of the game, the Raptors held Brooklyn to a mere two points. After an admittedly pretty driving/spinning lay-up from Brook Lopez (who, it should be mentioned, went off for 29 points on 13-of-22 shooting), Valanciunas stopped Lopez on a similar drive, blocking the shot and drawing a jump ball call. He then denied the entry pass to Lopez, which led to a deflection to Terrence Ross and an insane breakaway dunk. He followed that up with a sequence of challenges at the rim that turned scoring opportunities into misses. This all happened against the offensively woeful Nets, but it is encouraging.
On the other end, Jonas showed off a couple of new skills. First, on what felt like a typical catch and post-up manoeuvre, Valanciunas instead zipped a delicious back pass on the move to an open Lowry for a three-pointer. Then, similarly, Jonas backed Lopez down in the post and looked about to start his usual righty hook routine before flipping the ball back to DeRozan at the elbow for an easy floater. (Sure, Valanciunas also found time on another possession to pump fake twice and take an awkward shot that missed wildly. But we're talking baby steps here.)
Valanciunas checked out with Lowry and DeRozan with 46.4 seconds left and the game soundly in hand. He finished with those same six points, to go with 12 rebounds, one block and one steal. He shot a poor 27 percent, but now, with two assists in this game, he's managed a total of nine in the past four contests. It's a small gain but for a centre with tunnel vision and numerous zero assist games, the fact of Jonas seeing and making these passes is not nothing.
In many ways, it feels like the Raptors are still trying to figure out how to maximize Valanciunas. In the previous game against Brooklyn earlier this month, he had 22 points on 62 percent shooting and 11 rebounds; in the next game against Washington, he took four shots. His usage rate still hovers around 20 percent, well behind Lowry's 26.3 and DeRozan's huge 28.9. The biggest knock on JV's game has long been about his defense, and while he's no all-defensive first team player, it's clear that Casey has taken to trusting Jonas more and more in fourth quarter situations. His skills in all areas seem to ebb and flow, but they are generally trending upward.
Looking further ahead, there's a scenario where the Raptors let DeRozan walk (which seems improbably right now), or maybe the year after, allow Lowry to seek a pay day somewhere else (more probable). Suddenly the team's usage percentages could tip towards the still young Lithuanian. It's not an inconceivable outcome, even as we march through our third season of the Lowry-DeRozan show. (And what a show it's been!) The team's true ceiling, for better or worse, still feels linked to Jonas' improvement.
In the locker room after the game, after T-Ross had yelled an off-colour remark at a departing James Johnson (this whole exchange was pretty funny), there was Jonas, with a smirk and tongue-in-cheek, chiding Ross on his language. Yes, maybe there is a scenario where Valanciunas matures into the new focal point for the Raptors. He's showing some of the signs right now.