It’s still July, so there’s a long ways to go in the NBA off season, but the market for traditional centers hasn’t been very strong and all efforts to trade Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas have been for naught.
The Raptors are betting on the development of their players still on their rookie deals and there’s an argument that Valanciunas is in the way. President Masai Ujiri wasn’t kidding around when he responded to Pro Bball Report about how may young guys he could have on the Raptors.
“17, I think now with the (new) two-way contracts, we can squeeze in 17,” Ujiri responded to Pro Ball Reports query right before the draft. “It’s where our team is. I think the most important question is how many of these guys are contributing to your team and we feel that even the rookies we had had points in time in the season (where) they contributed. They are getting better, so we can have as many, it doesn’t bother me as long as we are making progress and they are getting better.”
The team has just inked the undrafted free agent big man from their Summer League team Kennedy Meeks as their 15th roster player although it’s likely to a non-guaranteed deal. Undrafted Malcolm Miller on a two-way contract makes 16.
But Ujiri isn’t going to end up with 17 young players, he wants to win and develop at the same time. So his team will be led by All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, plus the three-time NBA All-Defensive First Team big man Serge Ibaka. Add in veteran three-point shooter C.J. Miles and the Raptors will have one of the top tier starting units in the East no matter which player he chooses to round out his top five.
Valanciunas, the only other veteran on the roster, has been the Raptors starting center for five straight seasons, however, it’s not certain that he is the right fit going forward in today’s changing NBA. If he was, he wouldn’t have been in constant trade rumors going back to before the draft.
However, Valanciunas isn’t just another journeyman center. He’s better than that as a player who has been a top 10 rebounder in each of the past three seasons while he’s on the court. At 12 points and 9.5 rebounds in 25.8 minutes last year, he contributed and Ujiri made sure everyone remembers that.
“We believe in JV’s talent. I want everybody to know that,” Masai said after introducing Miles to the Toronto media. “If we reverse this a year before, everybody was talking about how great JV was. One year ago, when he got injured in that Miami series it was oh, if we had JV, if we had JV against Cleveland. I don’t know how in the hell one player has changed so much.
“You can say the style of play in the NBA is going in one direction, but we also believe in offensive rebounding and he’s really good at that and it’s something we are going to pay attention to this year.”
What Valanciunas does well is many of the things a traditional center does like rebounding, the tough problem is the numbers back up what the eyes have seen. The Raptors starting unit hasn’t been as effective as it should be with two All-Stars on it and the man clogging up the middle at times has been JV.
Blame the early season pairing with Pascal Siakam on playing with a rookie, but that doesn’t hold up with Ibaka. The two big men both played better when the other guy was off the court and if you have to choose a starter, it’s Ibaka in a landslide.
However, the Raptors got a glimpse of Valanciunas as part of the second unit in their first round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks. Where JV was ineffective in the starting unit going against quicker bigs, he helped stall the offense of Greg Monroe (another former starting center) off the bench and showed off his own offensive effectiveness in that matchup.
Perhaps the biggest tease out of the numbers was just how effective the pairing of Lucas Nogueira and JV was last season. There are question marks about both of them separately, but some how, for some reason, they were very good together. Sometimes chemistry you’d never expect is just there?
It is still a long time until training camp and Casey will be doing a lot of experimenting with this group of players in order to figure what combinations are going to be able to produce for him on the court.
Siakam in his second season is going to be better, but how much better is to be determined. He could be back in G-League if he isn’t ready.
Nogueira had better put on a show as this is his fourth NBA season and if he wants a fifth one, he has to be good enough that someone wants him next year. The big Brazilian shot blocker has a lot of incentive to find that “good game” on a consistent basis this time (hopefully).
Even Valanciunas might not be the same player who was on the court last season. There’s hope he’s found the range that three-point shot he was practicing and is moving a little closer to looking like a modern NBA center.
“He is working more on his shooting range,” Ujiri confirmed. “His shooting touch is something we need to take advantage of if he gets a little bit better at it. Eventually it will come.”
“The days of boom, boom, boom, pound it, pound it, pound it (are over),” Casey acknowledged last season.
The ever patient Ujiri isn’t going to waste an asset like Valanciunas even if he has wait until the trade deadline to get the deal he wants. Assuming JV doesn’t just find a way to make himself indispensable during the season.
“We are very comfortable with JV,” Ujiri emphasized. “We are not trying to give JV away. There were some scenarios where you know what, we are trying to create space and do some other things, … maybe (we would have) made a move, but with this team now, we are very comfortable.”
And just maybe there is still a role for a young veteran center who is developing a jump shot to be paired with an even younger developing big man coming off the bench? The Raptors really don’t have an extra veteran to waste on this roster.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.
Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson