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A one-game glimpse at what a Raptors Big Three can look like

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It was one game, but oh was it a tantalizing one from Jonas Valanciunas on Monday.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Toronto Raptors Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto rediscovered its identity for 48 minutes on Monday night. For long stretches of the 118-109 win over the Clippers, the belabored offense of the previous six weeks was replaced by the deathly efficient guard-heavy attack that lifted the Raptors to the top of the offensive charts early in the year. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry shining in concert is what gives the team its potency. That duo, blended with a fully-functioning supporting cast, spawns the formula for the Eastern Conference’s second-best team.

That’s about the ceiling of the Raptors, too. To say that isn’t an indictment of Lowry, DeRozan, Dwane Casey or the front office, per se. Life in LeBron James’ East comes with a built-in resignation that your best probably won’t be good enough. The reality is, if the Raptors are ever going to burst through the barrier and into an NBA Finals, it’s going to require that a third head materialize to help guide the snake.

In past years, Jonas Valanciunas was pegged as that third guy. As the highest-drafted player on the roster, selected during one of the darkest times in franchise history, his name has always been associated with hope. Valanciunas, with the right amount of jigging, was supposed to be the key to unlocking new frontiers for the Raptors.

Aside from a handful of ardent Valanciunas supporters, that optimist’s sentiment has cooled over the last year or two. Between his obvious and not-so reparable flaws (mainly on defense) and his reasonable long-term deal with the club, it’s getting increasingly easy to accept Valanciunas’ warts and embrace his utter fineness.

Toronto’s future doesn’t hinge on it’s highest-drafted player this decade reaching the star potential he carried coming out of Lithuania. But damn it wouldn’t it be incredible if he could get there?

While the Raptors displayed their true colours for healthy chunks of Monday’s win, Valanciunas provided a look into an even more vibrant illustration of what Lowry and DeRozan’s team might look like with a dependable third banana by their side.

Valanciunas was every bit the cog in the Raptors’ harmonious offense on Monday that his star back court was. Those contributions didn’t come in familiar JV form, either, which is exactly why his 21-point, 12-rebound, two-assist outing was so encouraging to take in.

Valanciunas makes his impact in the backwaters of the Raptors’ offense. Lowry and DeRozan’s drives initiate the flow more often than not, with the odd bone being tossed the big man’s way in the form of a designed post-up. Mix in some tip-ins and the odd bucket as a roll man (where he’s highly efficient and sparsely used), and you essentially have Valanciunas’ entire offensive profile on a given night.

He flashed a far more diverse array of skills on Monday; skills that fit more neatly into the Raptors’ offensive philosophy, and that actually cooperate with DeRozan and Lowry rather than work independently of them.

Because of the threat Toronto’s guards pose to any opposing defense, they often have to deal with multiple defenders cramping their space. Too often there isn’t a trustworthy outlet for one of Lowry or DeRozan’s escape passes out of traps in the pick-and-roll. Valanciunas, for example, has struggled to decisively move the ball along to exploit the four-on-three advantage the defense is conceding to the Raptors.

Not so on this play from Monday.

This is out of character for Valanciunas. He just doesn’t make whip smart passes out of the short roll when DeRozan or Lowry have to pass out of traps. Most often, the best case scenario when Valanciunas is handed a four-on-three is that he contemplates his next move long enough that one of Toronto’s guards springs free to start things over again. Sometimes he’ll put up a jump shot, or pump fake his way into a drive to the bucket; rarely does he exploit the numbers game with his passing to find shooters as open as Carroll was above.

One decisive pass doesn’t mean Valanciunas is now Draymond Green, but that assist gave a glimpse into a world where the Raptors have a catalyst able to carry out the offense’s progressions when DeRozan and Lowry face added pressure.

Here’s a look at Valanciunas’ second assist against the Clippers. It was as equally inconsistent with his playing style has the first.

Part of the reason Valanciunas sees his touches trail off throughout the course of a game is that his post-ups are predictable. Once the entry pass is sent, Valanciunas is probably in line for either a bucket, or a pair of free throws, a contested miss or a turnover.

Post-ups are inherently inefficient when compared to other sources of offense, a fact mirrored in the piddly 0.88 points Valanciunas is scoring per possession when he goes to work on the block, per NBA.com. With such a low rate of success, it’s hard for the Raptors to justify a deviation from their point-piling offensive style in order to feed their big man.

That of course all changes if Valanciunas can add “kick out to shooters” as an extra potential outcome when he starts to back down his defender. He’s not terribly efficient down low, but his brutishness is a magnet for double teams. Heads up passes like the one above turn stodgy possessions into the very shots their offense desires most — open threes for Lowry and the rest — without relying on a grueling foray to the basket by one of the Raptors guards.

Think about that. Valanciunas has the potential to save the ankles, elbows and ACLs of Toronto’s All-Stars with every wrinkle he adds to his passing repertoire. If that’s not motivation to improve, what is?

Valanciunas is a tremendously skilled offensive player for a man of his mountainous stature. When he puts all of his plus skills together he has the ability to dominate entire possessions.

His mid-range game has taken a step back this year, but in 2015-16 he flirted with 50 percent from 10-16 feet out, and knocked down 42 percent of looks from 17 feet to the three point arc. Those figures are down to 40.6 and 37.0 percent respectively this season, but shooting touch is clearly within him — sinking 85 percent of your free throws at seven-feet tall isn’t easy. His misses tend to be the product of indecisiveness. When he doesn’t screw around with coy pumps and ponderous looks at the rim before he winds up, Valanciunas is cash.

When his shooting touch, improved passing and dependably bruising screens fuse together, he’s capable of turning in 24-second outbursts that make you yearn for more.

On defense, there are fewer arrows pointing towards Valanciunas’ improvement. His relative immobility is always going to make him vulnerable to stretchier opposing bigs. Games against the Warriors, Cavaliers and Celtics this season have rendered Lucas Nogueira or Patrick Patterson as more useful options at centre.

There have been positive signs lately, though. Over the team’s last 15 games, the defense has been steady with Valanciunas on the floor. Only Nogueira and Lowry have better on-court defensive ratings than JV’s 103.9 mark in that span.

When the defense isn’t collapsing around him, it makes a lot more sense to roll with Valanciunas in high-leverage minutes. Bebe’s a high-level passer and can dunk anything thrown in his airspace, but Valanciunas brings a far more complete collection of skills (and surer hands as a rebounder) to the table. Being just okay on defense should be an avenue to more crunch-time responsibilities.

Valanciunas very well may be incapable of making his most recent performance into a norm instead of an outlier. For every darted pass is a moment of indecision that causes an open shooter to be missed or a possession to circle the drain. Monday’s game even had examples of bad JV.

There’s also reason to remain hopeful that he can turn those one-off flashes of brilliance from Monday night into more regularly observed habits. Just because he might be capped out defensively doesn’t mean his offensive development can’t continue. Just this season we’ve seen Valanciunas amp up his passing chops and find pockets where he can earn touches more within the flow of the offense.

A more expanded Valanciunas would mean a more potent Raptors attack that isn’t so dependent on the greatness of Lowry and DeRozan. It’s going to take time and focused hard work for him to reach his apex, but he need look no further than February 6th, 2017 for a template of what he could be for the Raptors offense one day soon.