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Behold the unexpected evolution of Jonas Valanciunas

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With the Raptors heading into crunch time with the playoffs just around the corner, Jonas Valanciunas just might be Toronto’s key to post-season success.

Don’t be fooled by the recent game against the Celtics, Jonas Valanciunas has taken his play to a new level since the start of March. He’s posted 15.3 points along with 9.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game during this stretch. That’s exclusive territory for a centre in today’s three-and-D NBA. But it’s not the whole story.

When the Raptors picked the towering Lithuanian centre fifth overall in 2011, they were hoping to add a dominant centre to complement then third-year guard, now perennial All-Star, DeMar DeRozan. His success seemed probable, as young Valanciunas had both the size and the ball skills that Euro big men are often known for. And he was athletic for his size, had soft hands, and looked smooth in the paint.

What the Raptors hierarchy didn’t anticipate, along with just about every other team this side of Golden State, was the sharp evolution the league would take over the past several seasons — one that moved dramatically away from the traditional centre camped in the post on both ends of the floor.

The new league-wide trend has shifted to three-point shooting. The key to NBA success today revolves around shooting the three and defending the three. As a result, the post-game — long a core staple for the league’s top teams — has faded out of fashion, marooning the old-school centre that once anchored championship squads. The Sixers and Wilt, the Celtics and Russell, the Lakers and first Kareem and then Shaq, the Rockets and Olajuwon, and the Spurs and Robinson followed by Duncan.

The new profile for the five became the stretch-5; the nimble big who could stretch defenses by stepping beyond the arc to hit the three, and could also defend out there. All of a sudden fours like Kevin Love, Al Horford and LaMarcus Aldridge were being moved to the five spot, given license to shoot from range, and thriving there.

A comparison of the number of three-point attempts taken by a cross-section of NBA centres between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons underscores the trend. Anthony Davis attempted 12 threes in 2015-2016, and 85 the following season. Marc Gasol 17 in 15/16, then 200 in 16/17. Al Horford 36, then 189. And in the most dramatic uptick, DeMarcus Cousins attempted only eight threes in 2015-2016, and a whopping 267 in 2016-2017. The NBA game had changed significantly.

For all his abilities and potential when he was drafted, shooting from deep simply wasn’t part of JV’s skillset. He showed the potential to be effective in the paint. And he had a sweet stroke for his size. Defending at the NBA level would take work, but the basics were in place. But Big V was clearly not a three-point shooter, principally because he’d never been expected to be a three-point shooter at any point in his development.

The unexpected emergence of the three-and-D big meant that a few years into what seemed like a highly promising professional career, JV’s ceiling dropped like a rock, along with those of other traditional young centres like him. His minutes per game mirrored this dip in his stock. In 2013-2014, JV averaged a career-high 28.2 minutes per game. Since that season, the average has steadily declined to 25.8 last season. Until his recent surge since March 1st, Valanciunas was averaging just over 22 minutes per game this season.

Expectations understandably shrunk, with most observers and fans contenting themselves with JV scooping up around 10 and 10 on most nights. Throughout his first five seasons, he averaged 11.5 points, 8.5 rebounds per game while shooting a solid 55.8 percent from the field. The new reality was that instead of these numbers being a springboard as JV moved into his prime, they were now his new ceiling. It was clear that Valanciunas wasn’t going to be a dominant big, much less the franchise player many thought he could when he was drafted.

However, there has been a gradual twist to this narrative over the past two seasons, with Valanciunas expanding his shooting range and showing a new side to his game. Throughout his career, he’s always been a very good free throw shooter with solid shooting mechanics, hitting 78.5 percent from the line. But this season and last, he’s been more inclined to look for the mid-range shot in open play. If a defender isn’t tight enough on him, JV is now stepping into the shot and converting at an effective rate. His field goal percentages last year and this year from between the restricted area to the three-point line are both over 40 percent.

This progression has been reinforced this season with Valanciunas adding a three-pointer, which he’s never displayed in previous campaigns. During the first 40 games of the current season, JV flirted with the occasional three, with 10 attempts or 0.25 per game. More often than not when faced with an open look from the arc, he would hesitate for a couple seconds before eventually launching, much to the delight of the ACC crowd. But it was far from a confident-looking shoot. Since then though, he’s increased his volume of attempted threes to 1.4 per game. Most importantly, since February he’s been hitting his threes at an impressive 39.6 percent clip, making him a legitimate stretch five for the first time in his career. This has forced opposing centres to come out and challenge him, offering him a chance to exploit his footwork and drive, or opening up the floor for a teammate. In both cases, the opponent’s rim protector is drawn out of the paint.

Let’s not kid ourselves, Valanciunas will never be a dominant three-point shooting big who hits 100-plus threes a year. But he doesn’t need to be. By adding range, he’s taken his game to the next level and added another dimension to a Raps team that was already multi-faceted. Since March 1st, he’s averaged 15.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, shooting a stellar 55.8 percent from the field. During that stretch, he ranks in the top 10 in points and the top 15 in rebounds for centres. Moreover, JV’s playing with a newfound confidence, knowing he can score on opposing bigs on every single possession. This is precisely what the Raps were hoping for in 2011.

Hand-in-hand with Valanciunas’ offensive growth has been improvement on the other side of the ball. In the past, he was often a liability on the defensive end. Apart from the occasional block, he was regularly dominated down low by skilled bigs and struggled to get out on stretch 5s. But since March, he’s doubled down on his defense and is anticipating much better, transforming his from a poor defender to a decent one.

Again since March, he’s been averaging 1.4 blocks per game, placing him 14th in the league at his position. No block was more important to the Raps and more illustrative of JV’s progress than his rejection of Clint Capela down the stretch versus the Rockets to snap Houston’s 17-game winning streak. It showed a whole new level of anticipation and footwork from JV.

The Raptors will need more moments like this from the Lithuanian centre in the upcoming weeks, especially given the probable first-round match-up against a talented Milwaukee team (or a rematch against foil Marcin Gortat of the Wizards). He’ll need to score in the opening minutes of the first quarter for the Raptors to establish their dominance down low, which will lead to open shots for his teammates. A full 71 percent of JV’s shots over the past ten games have come in the first half — a continuation of the trend all of this season.

On his current form, I don’t see John Henson, Thon Maker or Tyler Zeller containing JV. He has 30 pounds of muscle on Maker and Henson, and is much more agile than Zeller. Valanciunas’ interior play, sprinkled with the occasional three, should keep the Bucks off balance and open up the floor for DeRozan, Lowry and the rest of the crew. Add his improved defense, which is likely to encourage coach Dwane Casey to keep him on the floor in key situations, and there’s something special there.

Jonas Valanciunas has come a long way, even if it has been slightly under the radar. His superb play of late could well be a key factor leading the Raptors to a second Conference Final against LeBron and company in the past three years. Valanciunas seems more than ready to step up to the challenge.