The biggest tease on the Toronto Raptors roster over the past five seasons has been the fifth overall pick of 2011 Jonas Valanciunas. A solid contributor on average with the potential to be so much more, head coach Dwane Casey is still waiting on his prized center to emerge as a dominant force on a consistent basis.
Recently Valanciunas raised the hopes of his coach yet again with a four game stretch averaging 17.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.
“That’s what he should be doing every night,” Casey responded to Pro Bball Report after the win over Sacramento. “That’s what we expect out of him. That’s what we need from him.
“He’s just doing his job. He’s just going and getting them (rebounds). That’s what he should be doing. His size and power and strength. His attention to doing it. Focus on getting those rebounds.”
During his time in Toronto, coach Casey has been questioned about the amount of playing time Valanciunas gets. However, the big Lithuanian generally gets the minutes his play demands on a night-to-night basis. Some nights its hard to watch him come out of the game. Other nights it either doesn’t seem to matter or the Raptors look better with him on the bench and Valanciunas says he isn’t doing anything different.
“I didn’t change anything,” Valanciunas told Pro Bball Report after his big game against Sacramento. “I am just playing. I didn’t change my game. I didn’t change what I do. I didn’t change anything. I didn’t change what I eat. I didn’t change how I run.”
And therein lies the frustration from a team standpoint. In the three games prior to that very nice four game stretch, Valanciunas averaged 7 points, 8 rebounds and 0.3 blocks. In the two games afterwards he averaged 3 points, 6 rebounds and 0.5 blocks.
Those four games weren’t the first or even the best short stretch of games from Valanciunas. He’s done this at various times in the playoffs and in the regular season going back to his rookie year. Two, three or four outstanding games in a row, massive double-doubles often against top competition, followed by a string of forgettable efforts and there doesn’t seem to be a rational explanation for the change.
“Nothing unusual happened,” Valanciunas said about his effort against Sacramento. “16 rebounds is not something, wow.”
It’s not. Valanciunas has been a top 10 rebounder in the NBA on a percentage of available boards basis in each of the past three seasons. He’s been on par with guys like Tyson Chandler and Rudy Gobert. He only needs to play more minutes to be a double-double center.
However, rebounding alone isn’t enough. Scoring and defense are areas Valanciunas struggles to be consistent in. He can be dominant, but when he’s ineffective on offense, his inability to cover the three-point line and questionable pick-and-roll coverage gets him nailed to the bench.
“My job is to be in tune,” Valanciunas acknowledged. “My job is to see all the plays that are coming, especially on defense. I am the last defensive stopper. I got to see all the things that are coming to the basket.”
Valanciunas knows what to do and sometimes he does it. Just not consistently.
“This is the time in your career when you are turning from a young guy into a mature player,” Valanciunas told Pro Bball Report Report at training camp.
He couldn’t be more right.
Raptors were rumored to be shopping their big starting center during the summer and those rumors persist. However, they aren’t prepared to treat him like a salary dump. The organization continues to believe in Valanciunas’ talent and potential. He is, after all, still only 25-years-old and if Valanciunas can just find a few more of those big games at the right times, the two years and $34 million left on his contract after this season (including a player option in 2019-20) will seem like a bargain.
However, until Valanciunas can find a way to elevate his game on a more consistent basis, he risks being looked on like a tease. An asset to be moved for a player better suited to today’s higher paced game or a player taking up a salary slot who could effectively be replaced by someone cheaper.
There’s still hope Valanciunas becomes the player that averaged 14 points and 14 rebounds in his first three playoff games in 2014, averaged 14.7 points and 16 rebounds in his first three playoff games in 2016 and then rebounded after three less effective efforts to average 16.3 points and 13.3 rebounds over the next four games to help the Raptors eliminate Indiana and take a 2-1 series lead over Miami. That’s the tease of who Valanciunas could be.