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Player Review: The changing landscape for Jonas Valanciunas

The fifth-year centre undoubtedly has skill, but is the modern NBA turning him into a relic?

NBA: Miami Heat at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

In the history of movies that tap into bro empathy, there’s few that soar like The Shawshank Redemption.

One of its most affecting scenes comes about three-quarters in. Here, we focus on the character Brooks, a prison librarian who’s spent his whole life in Shawshank State Penitentiary. He’s a nice old guy, harmless, and he’s released on parole after 50 years. When he gets out of prison, he goes to work at a grocery store, but can’t keep up with the work. He nearly gets hit by a car — there are cars now! — and yearns for his place of comfort behind bars.

“The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry,” Brooks narrates over his final moments. Unable to adjust to the new world around him, he hangs himself in the dormitory room provided for him by the prison.

Brooks’ story is an accurate (while admittedly dramatic) metaphor for Jonas Valanciunas.

The fifth-year Lithuanian is a good piece for the Raptors. He brings rebounding and low block scoring. He is, statistically, a good player. The problem with Valanciunas, however, is the same as Brooks’ — once he was freed to be the team’s number one big, Jonas found that the world around him had changed. While he was bulking up and working on post moves, the NBA went and got itself in a big damn hurry.

The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors — bastions of league success — win with three-point shooting, blinding speed, and incredible spacing; the Raptors saw this first hand in their four-game elimination by the Cavaliers. Several other teams are mimicking this formula as best they can, anchored by seven-footers with “unicorn” levels of speed and skill.

Over and over (and over again), the Raptors fell victim to these units with Valanciunas on the floor. His reaction time on drives, pick and rolls, and help defense are simply too slow to be productive. As a result, it’s not surprising that his 2016-17 defensive rating of 107.2 was the team’s worst.

Jonas Valanciunas, whether you like what he brings to the team or not, is becoming a relic in a game that’s continuously speeding up. While his season was regression-free from a statistical standpoint, it’s this larger picture that will have Masai Ujiri evaluating his future — whether it’s continuing to start him, have him play a specialized bench role, or trading him. You have to think a change is coming too, especially if Ujiri’s beef with the current roster is a question of tempo.

With that in mind, let’s look at the details of Valanciunas’ season.

The Good

With the exit of Bismack Biyombo in free agency, Valanciunas was thrust into a larger role as the team’s number one centre. His backup, Lucas Nogueira, was (and still is) an unknown commodity; the hope was that a promising playoff run would result in a better, more consistent 2016-17 for Valanciunas.

The good — and this is always where the positives start with Jonas — is his play on the offensive end lived up to that consistency. Playing around the same 26 minutes per game as 2015-16, Valanciunas had a 55/81 season from the field and the free throw line, scoring 12 points per game, while bringing down a career-best 9.5 rebounds. His 60.1 true shooting percentage helped the team too, as only Nogueira and Kyle Lowry were better.

It’d also be remiss not to point out that Jonas Valanciunas is, and has been, a great soldier for the Toronto Raptors. His minutes have been erratic, his offensive role has been diminished on a guard-heavy team, and he’s never once complained to the media or done anything but grind out possessions. Even with the problematic aspects of his game, that’s the kind of big you want on your team — especially when league offenses are mostly ignoring back-to-the-basket players, most of whom have egos (like any of us).

The Bad

Despite his good nature and offensive prowess, the bad starts with Valanciunas’ status as a defensive liability. These limitations meant that Dwane Casey could not, or would not, expand his role in crunch time — limiting his ceiling as a go-to centre on the Raptors. Valanciunas averaged just 5.9 minutes in fourth quarters, right around the 5.4 and 5.1 from seasons prior. This, remember, comes without a crutch of a defensive backup as he had in previous seasons — at least not until the trade deadline.

Before the acquisition of Serge Ibaka, the Raptors most-used five man unit in fourth quarters had Nogueira, not Valanciunas, at centre. After the Ibaka trade, it wasn’t even close. Valanciunas wasn’t involved in any of the three most-used five man units in the final frame.

His immobility was a deterrent to the team, as the coaching staff made the decision that, despite a 2.5 net rating, his offense was not making up for the issues on the other end.

The Grade: C

Back when the Raptors were still in their growing stages, we could sit back and grade Valanciunas as a piece of that growth. Year-to-year, there was an expectation that he would add something new to his game, and help the team’s interior play as a result. He would grow as the Raptors did.

Now, however, the team is at a salary cap crossroads. With four free agents and a handful of contracts that may need to move, it’s impossible to separate Jonas from the larger NBA picture. Specifically, it goes back to that big question: what do the Raptors want to be?

Do they want to sign Serge Ibaka and shift him to centre full-time? If Kyle Lowry leaves, do they bring back their big lineup and play inside out through Valanciunas? Or, do they run it back with all the pieces as is?

If the Raptors want to speed up and play better defense, Valanciunas doesn’t seem like an able centrepiece of those plans. He could be a roster asset, though — I could see Jonas being a great change-of-pace option coming off the bench for 18-20 minutes a game.

Ultimately, these decisions will be made by Masai Ujiri over the next three months. For now, let’s give Jonas a solid C for the 2016-17 season.