As is the case in the post-mortem of every season, the question is how to build from here – even after the most successful campaign in franchise history. Somehow many were left disappointed, given that the summer ended without any high-profile moves or shakeups to the roster. If anything, in May of last season, if you were to point out to fans that the inevitable departure of Bismack Biyombo would leave the Raptors with Jarred Sullinger and a few ambiguous draft picks and rookies as the band-aid to the delicate depth in the frontcourt, many would see that as a sign of regression, particularly in comparison to the shuffling and stockpiling some of the other teams in the East have done.
None of that should be the de-facto measuring stick, of course. Labelling Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl as ambiguous is harsh, particularly in Siakam’s case, who looks more NBA-ready than originally thought. But beyond that, assuming neither of those two players will have significant impact for the Raptors this season, the best signing of all may come to be continuity itself. Amid the quiet summer, Cory Joseph’s evolved jumper could be seen as a new signing on its own, ditto with the improved health of DeMarre Carroll and the leaps that Norman Powell and Jonas Valanciunas are projected to make.
This will be Valanciunas’ fifth season in top-flight basketball. By nearly every possible metric, he has improved year-by-year since he’s been in the league. His numbers have risen in points, blocks, and rebounds per game; while his foul-happy tendencies have seen a gradual year-to-year drop in the four seasons he’s been in the NBA. His field-goal percentage has dropped marginally – but that’s a reasonable slide that correlates with the increase in usage, and it’s still good for sixth-best in the Association. We’ve even seen Valenciunas show rare glimpses of passing out of the post, and witness first-hand his dominance in the post-season and back-and-forth man-handling between himself and Hassan Whiteside before they both regrettably went down injured in game 3 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals, depriving us of the greatest behemoth melee since Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone’s rumble in the ’98 NBA finals.
To boot, this is by far Valanciunas’ best haircut since he’s been in the league. The stars have aligned.
Note: Since embedding the above picture, I have been notified by certain members of the RR staff that I am, apparently, the only human in the universe to admire JV’s new haircut. I want to take this opportunity to express my displeasure at humanity over this disagreement. The cut itself is underrated and incredible. To be fair, it looks better in-game, where a part of the hair tends to bounce as he runs back on D.
There is perhaps no better indication of where Valanciunas’ NBA career is headed than when observing his cold-blooded performances, over the years, when it matters. In his playoff debut against the Nets in 2014, in front of a raucous Air Canada Center starved of playoff basketball, the Lithuanian center rose like a phoenix when his teammates looked completely paralyzed. He didn’t seem to feel the same heebie-jeebies as other players do at their first rodeo, and to fast forward to 2016, he found ways to score the basketball during the post-season when the team struggled to carve their way through to the hoop.
In those scenarios, among others, having an asset like Valanciunas is huge. The perpetual challenge facing Valanciunas though, is how to take advantage of his efficiency more regularly. Dwane Casey likes to go to Jonas early and often, giving priority in providing early touches to JV over his all-star backcourt. Why that hasn’t been sustainable over the course of 48 minutes is still a question mark. While Valanciunas is efficient, his usage is relatively low.
He’s more than just a tip-in player who will hover the boards and get you 2nd chance points. Valanciunas’ mid-range jumper is respectable and his post-moves have proved efficient. At the very least, if he’s not scoring, Dwane Casey must find ways to incorporate him by giving him touches inside. One solution, which has been presented on RR several times by Blake, is to incorporate the Lithuanian with the 2nd unit more. That’s a sound idea, and would allow the Raptors to increase Jonas’ usage without sucking touches from their primary scorers. At the very least, even having an inside threat as good as JV while surrounding him with shooters would open up all kinds of possibilities on the offensive end. Not that any lineup would trump the Lowry + bench lineup, but this would be an interesting scenario to have.
Despite all this, Dwane Casey has stated he’s yet to commit to that idea.
Valanciunas effects the game when he doesn’t have the ball as well, to be sure. He can suck-in the shot-blocker and create space for the pull-up jumper once one of the swing-men gets inside. In this case below, if Whiteside hedges too far on Terrence Ross, he risks getting burned on a lob down-low to Jonas who was a complete menace to Miami in the post.
Year five is a milestone for Jonas Valanciunas. It’s safe to say he’s made it, and the signs over the years have been more than encouraging. In today’s NBA, he’s a rare commodity who provides Dwane Casey with a number of options to build his offensive scheme around. This season should be one where Valanciunas makes yet another leap as a player, and if he does, the Raptors have an entirely new foundation to build upon.Follow @raptorsrepublic