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Player Review: Jonas Valanciunas, the big man

The Raptors’ starting centre came into the season looking like a dinosaur, but improved his all-around game in 2017-18.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

What does the prototypical centre look like in the modern NBA?

Is it a tall, skinny rim-runner with the shot-blocking ability of a Clint Capela? Is it a three-point shooter who plays point guard but can beast in the post like DeMarcus Cousins? Is it an interior powerhouse like Joel Embiid?

Whatever it is, it’s probably not Jonas Valanciunas. JV is a classic post-up big who doesn’t offer the positional versatility, ball-handling, or speed that most teams are looking for out of the position these days. Coming into this season, Valanciunas had proven through five years in the league that he could be a quality match-up player who offered scoring and rebounding in the paint and ranked in the top quadrant of the league in little things like screen assists. His limitations were equally obvious: Big Val struggled to get up at down the floor at an NBA speed and could often be beaten on defense, he didn’t offer much floor spacing, and he was a sub-par passer and decision-maker.

Coming into 2017-18, all the talk around Valanciunas centered on the idea of trading him. With a young lottery pick in Jakob Poeltl and an aging big who promised to see centre minutes in small-ball units in Serge Ibaka, JV seemed like he might be the odd man out. Even more damning was the fact that his contract was virtually untradeable. He was an old-fashioned back-to-the-basket centre in an era when old-fashioned centres had gone out of style, and it seemed like the only piece you could expect to get back in return was an equally limited and overpaid big man. Everyone was selling centres and nobody was buying them, and there was legitimate fear that the extension he had inked in 2015 had turned into an albatross.

But whether in spite of or because of the trade talk, Valanciunas improved his game in 2017-18. He added a three-pointer, he improved his scoring touch in the paint, and he averaged his best per-36 numbers of his career across the board. He seemed to pick up a step and learn how to use his size to be less of a liability on defense, and he even improved his passing to fit in with the new ball-movement-oriented offense the Raptors instituted. While he’ll always be a big, slow player in a league that values smaller and quicker, JV offered promise this year that he can be about as good as that type of player can be.

The Good

On November 7, 2017, in a game versus the Bulls, JV held the ball on the right wing for a handoff to Kyle Lowry. When Kyle’s man didn’t give him space and Brook Lopez sagged into the paint, JV instead took a dribble, stepped behind the 3-point line, and drilled a three. It was his first made three of the season and just the second of his career.

Valanciunas didn’t take another three until December 10th, but from there he began to show a willingness to take — and make — threes as long as they were uncontested. He finished the season shooting 30-of-74 on threes, for a respectable rate of 40.5 percent. Of course, those numbers come with caveats — Valanciunas didn’t attempt a single three with a defender within 0-4 feet, and all of his makes were classified as “wide open” (6+ feet away from closest defender) by stats. But even if he hasn’t shown the ability to make a shot with a hand in his face yet, Valanciunas’ increased range is only one aspect of his growth as an offensive player.

You know those flashy moves in the paint where JV would take a couple of dribbles, get some space off his man, and score on a tough hook shot? If it seemed like those shots were going in a lot more this year, that’s because they were. Valanciunas averaged 1.09 points per possession on 152 post-up opportunities this year — second to Taj Gibson among players with 50+ post-ups on the year and a marked increase from 0.9 PPP on Valanciunas post-ups in 2016-17. Valanciunas just became a more dynamic scorer overall, and while his raw numbers don’t show it, his per-36 numbers stand out. JV averaged 20.4 points, 13.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists per-36 — all career-highs. Some of his scoring increase can be attributed to a slight uptick in usage rate, but the numbers still pop compared to prior years. It should come as a surprise to no one who watched the Raptors regularly that JV was a huge plus offensively, but it might have flown under the radar just how good he was when he was on the floor.

Valanciunas’ defensive improvement is a little bit harder to gauge. It seemed to the naked eye like JV was a bit quicker and more aware of how to cut down driving lanes than he has been in previous year. But the stats show mixed results. Valunciunas’ blocks and steals weren’t up or down significantly, and his Defensive Rating was right in line with his career averages. On the plus side, his defensive FG% allowed was down a hair from prior years. On the whole, whether the results bear it out or not, the process looked better. With blocks in nine of the ten playoff games the Raptors played, there were times when Jonas looked like a stronger defensive presence than so-called defense-first players like Ibaka or Delon Wright. Jonas will never be a great defender, but the Raptors merely need him play big and know his place in the scheme, and he showed improvement in that area this year.

The Bad

There are all sorts of measurable ways that Jonas took a step forward this year — so why don’t his raw numbers reflect those changes? For the fourth straight year, Valanciunas averaged between 12 and 13 PPG and 8.5 and 9.5 RPG. A major part of this is that he saw the fewest minutes of his career, since the Raptors frequently went with all-bench units and Valanciunas rarely saw the floor in the fourth quarter. But there’s also the question of whether Valanciunas is capped as this type of player. Is he a player who will average 12-and-9 no matter how many minutes he gets? Or can he be more like the player his per-36 numbers suggest if he gets the minutes to prove it?

JV has long struggled with defense, passing and decision-making, and while there were signs of improvement in all three areas this year, they’re still the biggest obstacles preventing him from getting true starter minutes. A superior interior player can draw the double-team and look for the open man, but JV still usually looks for one of the All-Stars to bail him out when he gets in trouble down low. Additionally, Valanciunas will often look indecisive before going to work on the inside: standing and holding the ball for a moment or wasting a few dribbles before he starts making a move into the paint. This indecision seems to be a carryover from the notorious pump-fake which JV has mercifully culled from his game in his recent years. Jonas is a good enough player that he often gets away with those extra dribbles as he sizes up his man, but it does leave him vulnerable to turnovers and double-teams. And, rightly or wrongly, questionable defense was still the main reason why Dwane Casey kept him on the bench for most 4th quarters during the regular season.

Another thing to nitpick is that Valanciunas’ screen assists were way down this year (from 3.6/game to 2.2/game). There are plenty of reasonable explanations for this — a higher usage rate and a three-point heavy offense might lead to less screening action for JV — but it’s still something worth keeping an eye on moving forward.

The Grade: A-

I’m going to go ahead and give Jonas an A- for the season. He did just about as well as he could have done in the minutes he did play, and his production was a big reason for the franchise-record 59 wins. In addition to his improved scoring touch, he showed without a doubt that he’s the only player on the Raptors’ roster who can bang with the biggest players in the league and his rebounding presence was sorely missed whenever he sat. His passing and defense were as good as they’ve ever been, and JV proved throughout that season that it was him — and not Serge Ibaka — who should be seen as the vital third cog in the starting unit.

The only reason this grade isn’t higher is because of the possibility that there could still be more to the JV experience. Can he be a fourth-quarter player? Can he play star minutes? Can he be a ball-dominant centre capable of being the focal point of an offense?

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: it all comes down to figuring out whether the Raptors have optimized the player JV can be by carefully managing his minutes, or whether they have held him back from being the star that some people see. And while JV might not be anyone’s idea of a modern NBA big man, that mythical big-minutes star just might be the presence that the Raptors need to put them over the top.