The Toronto Raptors drafted 7′ center Jonas Valanciunas fifth overall in 2011 and then they waited. First they waited a year for him to get out of his contract in Europe, then they waited while he figured out how to play the NBA style of game, but as they waited, the game changed.
Valanciunas arrived as a traditional big man and that’s what everyone expected. A presence in the paint, but not a great runner and a little slow-footed on defense covering quicker players. Unfortunately the trend in the NBA has been to go for stretch-fives that can drag traditional big men away from the comfort of the paint or those long lean players that bounce around on what must be pogo-sticks, can run as quick as a guard and fly high above the rim like a wing. It was beginning to look like Valanciunas wasn’t the center the Raptors would need going forward in today’s NBA.
“I am trying to adjust to the game,” Valanciunas told Pro Bball Report. “Trying to stay in this league, trying to be efficient, trying to be good in this league by doing everything to succeed.”
The big Lithuanian has been improving since his arrival on a slow mostly steady progression. Each year his scoring has improved and his rebounding has become more effective and while head coach Dwane Casey still only plays him about 26 minutes per game, this year he trusts Valanciunas in crunch time minutes against elite big men of all types including some of the stretch-fives that have been a big problem in the past.
“I lost weight,” Valanciunas explained. “I am trying to move quicker. Trying to be light on the feet. Move better, be able to defend quicker centers. I think that’s the biggest goal for me, stay in the game and be able to defend. On the offensive end, it’s easier for me. They don’t have enough size and enough strength.”
The improvements in Valanciunas’ game are easier to spot on a per 36 minute basis and by using some advanced statistics.
(Source Basketball-reference.com )
(ORB% TRB% – percentage of Offensive/Total available Rebounds grabbed)
Over the past two seasons Valanciunas has become an elite rebounder who is among the top 10 in the NBA at cleaning the glass. For comparison, this year he is a better offensive rebounder than Bismack Biyombo (11.7%) and almost as effective a rebounder overall as his defensive specialist teammate (20.7%).
It would be completely fair to say there are strong similarities in the development path of both Biyombo and Valanciunas. They are both from the same draft class and have been showing slow but reasonably steady progression each season. Biyombo being the poster child for what happens when a team gives up on a big man a year early and losses them for nothing to another franchise.
A big focus for Valanciunas remains on offense and he has shown progress. Where at one-time making a good decision after receiving the ball in the post was dubious, this year it seems like a sure thing and the advanced stats bear this out.
(USG% – percentage of team plays used by a player, TOV% turnovers committed per 100 plays)
“I am trying to develop my game on being efficient on the low post,” Valanciunas said. “Being the guy that can handle blitzes, not blitzes, going to the hoop and make a basket, trying to be consistent every game and bring the same game every night and help the team win.”
Basically, Valanciunas has stopped screwing up when his teammates feed him the ball. He knows what to do when facing a double-team and usually makes a good decision after receiving a pass. He has become the center this team needs on a night-in and night-out basis and nothing illustrates this better then his recent games back from his hand injury.
Over his last six games Valanciunas averaged 12.7 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks. He had a 16 point 18 rebound game against the Rockets traditional big man Dwight Howard and a few nights later followed that up with a 19 point 9 rebound game against the Hawks stretch-five Al Horford.
Following the win over Atlanta, the only stat Valanciunas wanted to know was how many points Horford had scored. When he saw it was just 7 points, he exclaimed, “YES!” Valanciunas knows if he can keep those big men that live on the perimeter off the score sheet he gets to play more and his team is more likely to win.
In this recent span of games, the Raptors every evolving center also showed off his lighter feet by tying his career high in blocks with 5 in New Orleans and then setting a new career best with 7 in Memphis against the always tough and physical Grizzlies.
It didn’t happen overnight, but Valanciunas is proving he’s a traditional big man who can adapt to the changing NBA game and still be the starting center the Raptors need going forward.