The thing about writing a Jonas Valanciunas player preview, or really the thing about any discussion regarding the Raptors center, is that it’s pretty much a facsimile of all we’ve been talking about since he came into the league in 2012: He’s our most efficient scorer on the offensive end. Give him more touches. Why doesn’t Dwane Casey just trust him on the defensive end. If he doesn’t play all the fourth quarter minutes, when will he ever learn.
Statistically, Valanciunas’ usage rate has increased in each of his four seasons with the team, topping out at 20.9 percent last year. With Valanciunas, it never feels like it is enough. There’s a version of the Raptors where the everything flows through him, where not every mid-ranged jumper from one of our guards is an indictment on an offense that should be conceptually more effective if their center was the main point of attack.
This version will never exist, not with this roster, and for the longest time, a lot of people — including myself -- conflated the idea that an increased role for Valanciunas meant a significant improvement for the team overall. Those arguments were amplified to a degree in the playoffs, when Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan appeared to be shooting the Raptors straight out of the playoffs in the first two rounds, while Valanciunas became a safety valve down low, the team’s best option to get easy buckets. He played aggressively on both ends of the floor, and looked ready for that increased role that we always talk about.
But what if what we saw in the playoffs is where Valanciunas lands with this team, a third or fourth option, but a particularly effective one. That feels like it’s okay too. The Raptors, despite all the complaints about how they get things done from an aesthetic standpoint, were a top-five offensive team last season. The assist totals remain a statistic they can improve on, but there was a much better flow to the offense then in years past. Valanciunas was a part of that, even if we want him to be the entire part. I mean, this team did win 56 games and make it to the Conference Finals with Valanciunas in his secondary role.
I’ve thought a lot about why we always want more from Valanciunas. The obvious reasons are the ones we always discuss. But the construction of this roster dictates that kind of expectation and optimism. We have players like Lowry, DeRozan and DeMarre Carroll who are who they are. They’re in their prime, or coming out of it, and while they each provide a unique set of skills to this team, there’s no way to envision how they can be a better version of who they are (okay, if DeRozan starts making threes on a regular basis, we can change that). The Raptors also have another set of players, like Terrence Ross, Cory Joseph and Norman Powell, players on the younger side who still have plenty of room to grow, and while they just might make those leaps, they also have a lower ceiling than Valanciunas.
In that way, Valanciunas stands out, as the player in his own category. For a team without a true franchise superstar, perhaps having a center vault into the next level can help them, on aggregate, catch up or at least close to gap on a team like the Cavaliers. And it all goes back to the discussions we keep having about our starting center. More touches, better two-way play, an opportunity to finally break out. Maybe this is the season that he forces Toronto into giving him a larger role. Or maybe this is the season we accept him for the player that he is, and he’s not.
I’ve been watching a lot of old Dragon Ball Z episodes lately. It’s what 32-year-olds do when they want to re-live a part of their childhood but with the functional capacity of an adult brain. Watching villains like Frieza and Cell, I started thinking about Valanciunas. In a lot of these fantasy stories, anime, or whatever you want to call it, when the villain teases a final form, it’s a Chekov’s Gun, the story will eventually lead you there. Frieza transformed several times and eventually became his most powerful form, and same for Cell, who reached his Perfect Cell form after absorbing Android 17 and 18.
In these stories, a particular expectation is set, and the particular character reaches those expectations. It’s a bit different in real life, in sports, and in particular with Valanciunas. We have this ideal version of him and how he is deployed that we’ve seen for years, but it doesn’t mean that’s the end point for his story arc. Valanciunas might never be what we expect him to morph into, and the most surprising part about that plot twist might be we don’t necessarily need him to be that idealized version to be the team that we are, and more importantly, the one we’re trying to become.