Always good for peeling back the layers of the Toronto Raptors, Open Gym has provided another indelible moment. Shortly after the trade deadline, Jonas Valanciunas and Raptors president Masai Ujiri connected in practice, sharing this exchange.
VALANCIUNAS: Thank you, Masai
UJIRI: I know you didn’t want to go there.
VALANCIUNAS: Nah. When I saw that Drummond and my face together, I was like [wagging finger] “Please no.”
UJIRI: Hey, you’re way better than Drummond.
The cat’s out of the bag, folks. Valanciunas knew full well about his involvement in February trade rumours. Along with the Sports Illustrated report about an Andre Drummond swap, ESPN reported his involvement in a deal with Sacramento, where he and a first rounder would be exchanged for DeMarcus Cousins. While Vivek Ranadive had other man crushes in mind, this is the most serious the Raptors have been about trading their fifth-year centre.
Both these deals never came to fruition, though. Deep down, I believe that the Raptors concluded that they still believe in Valanciunas, even after the tribulations of the last two years.
Jonas still carries all the baggage of his early years. He’s an unreliable, slow defender that opposing teams go at in the pick and roll. His conditioning is wildly unpredictable on a night-to-night basis — some nights he’s a frothing goliath, others he’s content with a light jog. He can be frustrating to watch in the Raptors offensive schemes, and only a couple Raptors guards have the chemistry to provide him good touches.
Still, according to all reports, Ujiri and the rest of management are still a little buzzed on Valanciunas’ playoff production last year. His 13.6 points and 11.9 rebounds per game in the Indiana series belied his overpowering nature, forcing the Pacers to play a struggling Ian Mahinmi and avoid stretchy lineups with Myles Turner at the five.
Sure, maybe Ujiri telling Jonas he’s better than Drummond is a common courtesy from GM to player. It also might be how he really feels — especially during a period where Valanciunas is finally breaking out in a new, more specialized role.
The New Normal
With the acquisition of Serge Ibaka from Orlando, Raptors coach Dwane Casey finally has a versatile power forward that he can play at centre in the fourth quarter, and he hasn’t been shy about using it.
While the contentious discussion over Valanciunas’ crunch time minutes has continued this season, he at least made appearances in 63 percent of Raptors fourth quarters before Ibaka’s debut. Now, the new normal is for him to sit. Valanciunas has played in just two fourth quarters in the ten games with Ibaka — that’s 20 percent for the math whizzes out there.
Casey has been quick to trust his new players in big moments, as the two-man lineup of Ibaka and P.J. Tucker lead the Raptors in fourth quarter minutes over the last ten games. They’ve mostly been combined with Cory Joseph and either DeMarre Carroll or Norman Powell — all players that can play perimeter defense and cover for the spacey DeMar DeRozan.
With this new way of thinking, the Raptors have narrowed Valanciunas’ specialist role even further. He’s asked to be a big man for the first three quarters: grabbing rebounds, converting dump-offs, and earning a couple more dedicated touches as a result. Considering the ego of NBA players, it’s relieving to see him play well, improving his efficiency with the new-look Raptors.
The numbers bear this out. With Kyle Lowry injured, Valanciunas’ usage rate has ticked up to 21.5% from his season average of 19.8%. He’s more efficient on dump-offs and shots in close, which is good. More importantly, though, he’s turned up his ability to knock down a ten-foot jumper. Compare his shot chart for the season with that over the last ten games.
And while the team still doesn’t call his number on offense very often, he’s converting excellently on possessions designed for him. According to the NBA, he’s shooting 61.9% on touches lasting two to six seconds – that’s up from his paltry season average of 49%.
A lot of this has to do with those intangible pillars of basketball for big dudes: confidence, quick moves, and powerful finishes. Here’s a few examples from recent games where Valanciunas gets the ball, immediately knows where to go, and gets a bucket.
While this is still a sliver of what the Raptors do on offense, Valanciunas possessions keep him engaged on both ends. As Casey continues to sit him in the fourth quarter, this engagement is critical to team success. The Raptors need Valanciunas to be their workhorse before the closers get out there.
Playing for a Future
Beyond just playing for the team, Valanciunas is also playing for his own future.
As HQ writer Daniel Hackett has reviewed in his salary cap updates, the Raptors will almost certainly need to shed $15 million or more in salary if they want to resign Kyle Lowry, Patrick Patterson and Serge Ibaka long-term (and pay a realistic amount of luxury tax).
The easy answer to this predicament is shedding DeMarre Carroll ($14.8 million), as the Raptors have more certain depth at the wing positions. When you consider how Valanciunas ($15.4 million) was shopped at the deadline, though, he could be just as likely a candidate for a salary dump. Internally, there’s a future where Jakob Poetl (or, god help us, Lucas Nogueira) can fill the three quarters role that Valanciunas has now — but it’s hard to see that happening in 2017-18.
All this is to say: even if he continues to play like he has since the trade deadline, Valanciunas still might not be a part of the Raptors’ plans going forward. This is an audition for other teams just as much as it is for Toronto.
He might have an audience too. Teams will look at how Jusuf Nurkic has fit in a fast-paced environment like Portland, and there will be an appetite for a change-of-pace big like Jonas Valanciunas. His selflessness in taking a specialist role is also a huge selling point for the big man — it’s part of why the Raptors kept him over a more demanding Drummond.
That anything-to-win attitude has been an underrated part of Valanciunas’ fit with the Raptors, until now. Without fourth quarter minutes, he’s still managed to keep a positive mind, improve his efficiency, even make jokes with the general manager. Those are great signs for a new-look Raptors team, still trying to find their way.
Stats accessed March 15 on NBA.com and Basketball Reference.