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2018-19 Player Preview: Jonas Valanciunas, growing frontcourt veteran

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With a player option in the horizon, and a new head coach in his corner, Jonas Valanciunas has nowhere to go but up this season.

NBA: Toronto Raptors-Media Day Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

When you believe in your children, they become capable of extraordinary things.

For the sake of this experiment, let’s pretend that Jonas Valanciunas is our 7-foot tall, hairy, Lithuanian son.

Is he the best in his class? No, but damn if he doesn’t try. Besides, when your classmates are the likes of Anthony Davis (who, by classroom standards is a total overachiever) and Joel Embiid, striving for slightly above mediocrity is perfectly acceptable.

But Jonas didn’t do that.

Over his six NBA seasons, Jonas has consistently tweaked and improved his game, bringing it to a level that allows him to stay relevant in an NBA era that sees less and less use for big men with limited skill sets. In 2012, an eager to prove himself Jonas Valanciunas recorded a double-double in his first ever NBA game, scoring 12 points and 10 rebounds, in an eventual 90-88 loss to the Indiana Pacers. With Hamed Haddadi unable to ever actually play for Toronto due to immigration issues, and the only other option being 105th best overall Raptor Aaron Gray, Dwane Casey had no choice but to put his faith into Jonas.

Shy to shoot, Valanciunas attempted just 366 field goals in his first season, none of which extended past the three-point line. His sophomore season would show slow, but in hindsight, tremendous growth, attempting nearly double the field goals including a single three point attempt. The 2014-15 season however, saw Jonas’ minutes decreasing by nearly two hundred, despite playing only one less game. With his time on the court declining, Jonas used his time on the bench to learn how to impact the game in different ways, and in similitude to DeMar DeRozan, he found a way to get to the free throw line, and, unlike that one guy actually do something there.

Former head coach Dwane Casey’s lack of assurance in Valanciunas has been well documented, particularly in his decision to rarely play JV in a fourth quarter. Despite posting his a career high in both points with 980, and assists, with 81, Jonas played the third least amount of minutes in his entire career, at 1,727. Valanciunas made the most of his shrinking minutes, averaging 1.09 points per possession on none other than the JV specialty, the post-up. Determined to prove himself, Jonas worked not only on perfecting his current arsenal, but adding to it, taking teammates, coaches, and opposing players by surprise every time he shot a three. Still, Casey didn’t quite believe.

When Casey was fired following yet another playoff series loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, it appeared as though president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster were pointing the team in the direction of a rebuild. Instead after nearly a month of deliberations, management opted to go the route of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” and promoted offensive assistant coach Nick Nurse to the position of head coach. Nurse, who had been with Jonas since the second year of his NBA career, helping him to adjust to the NBA and improve his (and the team’s) offense over the course of five seasons, had many wondering just what level of play would be seen from the Lithuanian big man.

In his Media Day press conference less than two weeks ago, Nurse expressed his excitement about integrating the new players into the Raptors’ line-ups, but also stated that the depth of the team allows the line-ups to change on a whim, without fear. This was a refreshing change from Casey, who was notorious for setting his line-ups in stone, only to adjust them by throwing something at the wall until it sticks during crucial points of important games.

The first instance of the Nurse experiment came during the Raptorsfirst preseason game, where Valanciunas was notably absent from the starting line-up. The team would go small with Serge Ibaka starting in the middle

It feels premature to be excited for a full season of Valanciunas just from a pair of preseason games, but the improvements he showed make it difficult not to start an early campaign to get him in to the All-Star Game. Sure, he still has work to do, but every single thing Jonas needed to work on, he did. A notoriously slow decision maker, Jonas is now trying to act faster, at one point throwing a baseline pass to Delon Wright from under the basket, instead of trying to pivot past his defender for a bucket. The pass, unfortunately went directly out of bounds, but the level of comfort Jonas felt in order to even attempt it was an improvement.

The third quarter of the same game saw Valanciunas quickly attempt his very first contested (!) three point shot, and while he missed, he didn’t sag bag, instead running to the post to retrieve his own rebound, and drawing a foul. The Jonas of last season would have hung back and allowed DeMar DeRozan to get to the line instead. The absence of DeRozan and his ability to draw fouls also left the onus on Jonas to get to the free throw line. On four separate occasions Jonas was sent to the line, and made all his free throws in the game. This, combined with the 75 percent he shot from the field, gave him 17 points in a 122-104 win against the Portland Trailblazers.

Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz proved to be a more difficult opponent, not just for Jonas, but for the Raptors team as a whole. Being out-muscled by Gobert, Jonas appeared to fall back into old habits. Though he tried (for like, a whole second) to stay with Joe Ingles after a steal, Jonas quickly returned to lagging behind and allowing the Jazz to blow past him to the basket. By no fault of his own, Valanciunas was unable to stay with Rudy Gobert on any defensive plays. Frustratingly, he once again brought the ball down to collect before shooting on nearly every single offensive rebound, except for when he caught a bullet pass from Kyle Lowry and instantly put it in the basket. The newfound quickness that he showed in the first game was almost non-existent in the second. Still, he finished with 18 points and nine rebounds, including one in which he read that Kyle’s shot from beyond the arc was not going in, and instead of watching grabbed the ball mid air for the offensive rebound.

This is the story with Valanciunas — he has ups and downs, and things to work on. His speed, decision-making, and confidence all have room for improvement. A new 14-second shot clock reset may hinder his ability to make decisive plays, or get set up for a three point shot. But his progress over the years is as undeniable as it is spectacular. As Valanciunas is given more opportunities to try, and to fail, it isn’t insane to say that he has not yet reached his ceiling.

And when you’re seven feet tall, the ceiling is pretty freakin’ high.