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Raptors Player Review: The Rise of Jonas Valanciunas

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After years of slow development, Jonas Valanciunas finally began to put it all together 2015-16. His future is an exciting one for Raptors fans to think about.

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Jonas Valanciunas was pretty good already. He'd grown as a player each of his first three years in the league. His rebounding and shot blocking numbers took a slow and steady trajectory upwards, and while he wasn't trusted in fourth quarters, his excellent efficiency, offensive rebounding and touch gave the Raptors a nice complementary weapon.

During the 2015-16 season, though, Jonas Valanciunas began to show flashes of why Toronto made him the 5th overall pick in the draft. Why they waited a year for him to come over, and why they've been so doggedly patient (to the frustration of many fans) and careful with his development.

Jonas Valanciunas has the chance to be a star.

Statistics

The man they call JV Nasty missed 22 games because of injury in 2015-16, and that somewhat marred the delightful tapestry of a season that he wove together on both sides of that malady. He averaged career highs in points (12.8), rebounds (9.1) and blocks (1.3) per game, while tying his modest career high averages in assists and steals. He may have been overshadowed at times by the flashy play that Bismack Biyombo exhibited while filling in for him, but Valanciunas was a far superior player when at his best.

JV always looked the part of a gifted offensive player, but now seemed more decisive. The numbers bear this out. His eFG% of .565 ranked 11th in the entire NBA and his True Shooting % of 61.0 ranked 10th. His offensive rating of 120.4 put him 8th. His Win Shares per 48 minutes (.211) ranked him 11th in the NBA, or as it's also known, two spots better than Kyle Lowry.

He attempted 70% of his career high 8.9 FGA from less than five feet away, making 61.5% of these. His numbers from 5-9 and 10-14 feet remained much the same as in years past, but there was marked improvement from 15-19 feet. Jonas attempted a career high in shots from this distance (just 0.7 per game, but still) and upped his makes to 51.2% from only 40.0% the year before, and 36.9% in 2013-14. This notable improvement is something that will need to become a consistent part of his game as he assumes a larger role in 2016-17.

He also seemed stronger and more tenacious on the glass. His offensive rebounding numbers, already solid, improved.to 10th best in the NBA, at 3.1 per game. This despite him playing only 25.9 minutes per game, the second fewest of anyone in the Top 10. If you flip the script and look at the same stats per 100 possessions, JV still ranks 11th, but more than half of the names ahead of him have disappeared. Guys like Andre Drummond, Robin Lopez and Kenneth Faried predictably remain, but instead of  big minute players like DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard, you start to see role players and bangers like Boban Marjanovic, Thomas Robinson and Ed Davis. The point is that Jonas is hanging with both groups, and given an expanded role, could become a dominant ballboard grabbing force.

We got a glimpse of this potential during the playoffs. Toronto did get lucky with match-ups, and of course, Jonas again missed some time, but he upped his offensive rebounding numbers to 7.6 per 100 possessions, trailing only Chris Andersen and Clint Capela for the NBA lead.

On defense, he was great near the basket and less than good away from it. A window into that dichotomy: he held opponents to an excellent 29.7% shooting from 5-9 feet, but they shot 45.3% from 20-24 feet, by far the worst mark on the team. It's tough for a guy as big as Jonas to switch out and cover perimeter shooters effectively: Who knew?

Best Game

There are a few candidates here, such as the season opener against Indiana where he posted 21 points and 15 rebounds on 8/11 from the field, or a late season game against Memphis in which he made only one field goal but managed 11 points, 14 rebounds and 7 blocks. But for me, the growth of Jonas was best exemplified here:

MMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmm. Hassan Whiteside's lunch be delicious.

Worst Game

Why are we talking about worst games again?

OK fine, I'll stick to the format.

Jonas's worst game was a tie between the game against the Lakers when Kobe broke his hand and the game against the Heat when he sprained his ankle. The rest were a glorious preview of a wondrous future.

Strengths and Weaknesses

+ Offensive rebounding and, really, rebounding in general

+ Improved touch around the glass, and a broadening shooting range

+ Very good free throw shooting (for a big man)

+ Beard game is strong

+ Has grown tough all-around, particularly with on-ball defense

- Passing out of double teams (this needs to be his next big development)

- Passing in general -- we'll call this the 'anti-black hole' corollary.

- Help defense (improved greatly last season but still needs work)

Role Next Season

Jonas is clearly in line for an expanded role next year. Dwane Casey and Masai Ujiri have said as much publicly, and his play down the stretch and into the playoffs certainly warranted it. What that role entails will be interesting. Casey has said it will be on the coaching staff to figure out how to keep him on the floor against smaller lineups, and to ensure that he's given every chance to succeed. He also continues to say that he feels Jonas could stretch his game out to the three point line over the next couple seasons, which, sure! Sounds great!

On JV's part, he needs to continue shooting that 15-18 footer with confidence and developing his ability to pass-- both out of the high post, and if a team sends help when he posts up down low. On a team that figures to lack Bismack Biyombo, it's likely that Valanciunas will see a significant spike in minutes -- his career high was 28.2 in his second season, and he's held steady around 26 the past two years. Are we talking 30 minutes per game? More? Or are we just talking a higher usage rate when he's actually in the game? It'll be an ongoing process, and I look forward to the irrational overreactions of the Twitter-verse the first time he plays 24 minutes against a tough match-up.

A GIF to Sum it All Up