The Toronto Raptors are investing heavily in the development of their young traditional center Jonas Valanciunas, but in today’s NBA where stretch fours and fives abound and big men are found hanging around on the three-point line can a player that could be considered “paint-bound” thrive or even survive nowadays?
It is hard not to notice when Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey turns to the 6’9 veteran Amir Johnson over Valanciunas in numerous situations – even when Valanciunas is having one of his better games statistically and there have been lots of calls from the Toronto fan base for Casey to give his starting center more burn. However, the Raptors, more than ever before, are in it to win games this year and young players make more mistakes than veterans.
“One play you can make a mistake, but you know what to do next play,” Valanciunas said. “I am trying to learn from my mistakes and do better next time. You can’t think about your mistakes (during the game). Now (post game) is the time to think about your mistakes, fix things and do better tomorrow.”
“The more experience you have, the better you can control things, be more calm, realize what you need to do better and not take things in a bad way.”
While Valanciunas has the size on offense and the potential to dominate in the paint over the often smaller centers he is up against, that isn’t his primary role. Valanciunas’ focus is on the defensive end of the court and it is usually his current shortcomings on defense that see him subbed out by Casey in critical moments.
“My job is to stay active and see the ball, be a defensive player, cover the paint and cover the rim, that’s my job” Valanciunas said. “I have to do that every night.”
However, in today’s NBA, the opposing center often doesn’t play a style that Valanciunas is adept at defending. As a traditional center, Valanciunas wants to wrestle, bump and grind in the paint and many NBA teams just don’t have anyone to battle with and sometimes a veteran can still just plain take advantage of Valanciunas’ inexperience.
“For me personally it is way better to play against a typical center, a big guy who is in the paint wrestling because I do the same thing, for me (that) is much easier,” Valanciunas said. “It’s tough. It’s tough. I am not used to going (out to) the three-point line and cover stretch big guys who can really shoot the ball. I just don’t like that. I am not fast enough.”
In fast paced games and against centers that like to hang out around the three-point line, a young traditional center like Valanciunas is going to struggle defensively at times. He is still learning his craft and can’t always punish his long range shooting opponent enough with his own offense to stay on the court as long as some would like to see.
However, there are plenty of solid examples that support the Raptors continued emphasis on Valanciunas development. Roy Hibbert is a traditional center that has anchored the Pacers very stingy defense while providing limited offense and questionable defense on stretch big men. The Warriors turnaround on defense started with the acquisition of Andrew Bogut’s big defensive presence in the paint. Even the Spurs turn to the inside presence of Tiago Splitter (when he’s healthy) despite having more than enough talent to win without him. Outside of the HEAT in recent years with LeBron James hiding a wealth of roster deficiencies, most good teams have an effective (mostly) traditional center.
It is easy to forget Valanciunas is still just 22-years-old. There are games where he puts up impressive double-doubles and provides superior rim protection. It is also easy to second guess a coach who has veteran options that are less likely to make mistakes at the end of games than a young player. The Raptors young center still has a lot to learn and isn’t going to be effective every night against every opposing lineup.
As Valanciunas continues to work on his mistakes defensively and improve his skills on at the offensive end of the court, he will eventually earn his coach’s trust and there are signs he’ll earn that trust soon enough. He finished last season strong and had a stellar start to his postseason experience. Already this season, Valanciunas has put up some impressive double-double efforts mixed in with a few forgettable evenings.
The traditional center isn’t dead yet in the NBA and Valanciunas should do a lot more than just survive in the league. The Raptors are being patient with their expectations. It is only a matter of time before Valanciunas evolves into the player envisioned when he was drafted.
photo credit: Paul Saini Fylmm.com
“My job personally is not just scoring. I am not a big scorer – more of a helper for DeMar (DeRozan) and Kyle (Lowry) to get them wide-open, set a screen, rebound the ball, that’s my job. Everybody on the team has their own role.”
“(My) hair doesn’t look good, so I grow a beard,” Valanciunas explained. “Long hair doesn’t look good for me. (My wife is) not accepting, but I fought for it and I got it – finally I got it. (We) had a lot of conversations about that stuff.”