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Player Preview 2017-18: Can Jonas Valanciunas fit with the new-look Raps?

The Raptors' centre is in a precarious spot, a post-up big on a team that wants to pick up the pace.

NBA: Toronto Raptors-Media Day John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

With Jonas Valanciunas, nothing happens quickly.

When I picture Valanciunas, I jump to those lumbering runs up the court. Grabbing a rebound, throwing an outlet pass, dropping his head, and slowly taking off — with all the determination of someone who’s willing to play faster, but is stuck in second gear.

It’s apparent that Valanciunas understands his shortcomings, the ones that have kept him from playing crunch-time minutes for the Raptors. His off-season workouts seemed to have a focus on agility. He’s been in basketball shape playing for the Lithuanian team. As a result, we’ve seen a more lithe big in the preseason, one who’s getting even more involved on the pick-and-roll.

This is promising, and it’s a trend that needs to continue for Valanciunas. Of the Raptors starters, his situation is the most precarious.

It’s no secret that Masai Ujiri shopped him around during the off-season, with rumoured deals surfacing around the NBA Draft in June. There’s been continued talk this week, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe threw out the concept that the Raptors would flip Valanciunas for a more mobile centre.

It makes sense, as he appears to be one of the least adaptable players for the “culture change” the Raptors have underway. Dwane Casey wants to increase his team’s pace, and encourage his team to share the ball in the process. Over the last two weeks, we’ve seen that manifest itself: the ball is zipping around, the team is taking more threes, and they’re looking far more modern and a little more in tune with the going trend for NBA offenses.

So the big question is: where does Jonas Valanciunas fit in all this? The team seems to be moving away from possessions centred around posting him up (or whatever was left of those possessions).

Let’s look at the promising signs we’ve seen of him meshing in the preseason offense, then discuss the elephant in the room: whether his defense is serviceable enough to keep him on the court.

Roll-First on Offense

In the preseason, Valanciunas was a force, averaging 11.8 points and 9.5 rebounds in 20 minutes per game. Another tasty tidbit is the 1.3 assists he averaged. Paltry, yes — but double anything he’s had in his five previous seasons.

This is mostly due to how the Raptors are using Valanciunas as they taste test their new offense. The big man is almost exclusively being used for dives down the centre of the lane, where he’s been able to kick it to the open shooter, or make tidy gimmes inside.

He’s also roaming a bit further out too. True, everyone wants to talk about the three ball, which still looks like a strange fit in JV’s game as he missed both his preseason attempts.

The reality is, though, posing even a minor threat as a 20-feet-and-out shooter allows Valanciunas to expand his usable area. His picks can be set further out, his defender has to think about where he’s going — pick or pop — and it removes predictability from the Raptors offense without sacrificing Jonas’ premium rebounding ability on the other end.

If the Raptors are going to continue moving the ball as they did in early October, it would appear to be a death knell for Valanciunas’ post-up possessions. These have been waning over the last three years anyway, and Jonas is forever a good soldier. If he’s able to expand his range a bit further, roll with energy, and make passes when they’re there, he’ll continue to be a weapon on the offensive end as the Raptors change.

As ever with Valanciunas, it’s the other end where the questions arise.

Defensive Question Marks

Three years ago, there was a deep rift in the Raptors fanbase over Jonas Valanciunas. While Dwane Casey benched him in crunch-time minutes, the pressure to get him into games began to mount.

As this has become the norm, though, the anger appears to have subsided. As I observed in his 2016-17 player review, Valanciunas’ fourth-quarter minutes have held steady: 5.9 last season, 5.4 and 5.1 in the two seasons prior. Because of his slow feet in pick and roll defense (in a league full of guards who feast on these scenarios), the team has had to keep him off the floor — opting for small lineups where Serge Ibaka or the out-going Patrick Patterson have played centre.

This is probably still reality for the Raptors. While Valanciunas looked good in the preseason, this isn’t the time for opposing teams to scout weaknesses. All 30 teams are working on their sets: learning the playbook, getting comfortable with teammates, getting into game shape. When real basketball starts, that’s when we’ll see opposing guards attack Valanciunas — as they have relentlessly in the past. Can Jonas keep up?

It’d be foolhardy to expect perfection, or anything close to it. Since Casey’s defensive scheme was changed last season to keep Valanciunas closer to the paint, he’s been a bit more successful. This allows him to provide weak-side help when he’s not the guy being attacked.

I’d expect, though, that the Raptors will still have a weakness when Valanciunas is the big directly involved in pick and rolls. While he thrives on matchups with other old-school centres like Andre Drummond, there’s still not a lot of hope he can hang with more mobile frontcourts in Cleveland, Boston, Miami, and others.

This is just real life for Jonas Valanciunas: he’s a pretty slow guy. Incremental improvement is on the table, though, and his rebounding is a huge asset for a Raptors team that may struggle in that regard. The team is happy he’s here, but will have to be realistic with his ceiling.