Overshadowed by the offensive dominance of DeMar DeRozan to start the season, the Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas has taken his game to another level against a murderers row of opposing centers.
“You have the two top rebounding teams in the league,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said prior to the game against the Raptors on Monday night. “You have a team in Toronto that is averaging 16 offensive rebounds per game and everybody thinks of DeMar (DeRozan) and Kyle (Lowry), while you have to start talking about Jonas (Valanciunas). He’s a load down there.”
Valanciunas opened the season with a 32 point 11 rebound game against the Pistons and last year’s leading rebounder Andre Drummond. Then he scored 10 points and grabbed 17 rebounds against the Cavaliers and last year’s second best offensive rebounder Tristan Thompson. His third game was a 12 point 9 board effort against the NBA’s current best rebounding team and their young center Jusuf Nurkic. On the road in Washington playing against the center who has always given Valanciunas his biggest challenge, Marcin Gortat, he had a better than last year 10 point 7 rebound night in the Raptors first road win of the year.
The challenges facing Valanciunas aren’t about to end either as the Eastern Conference’s top scoring center Hassan Whiteside (19.8 points and 13.8 rebounds thru 4 games) and the HEAT visit Toronto on Friday night.
Valanciunas has always been outgoing and friendly off the court and willing to accept coaching on the court, however, his steadily improving stats has never translated into a bigger role on the Raptors, until now that is. Thru four seasons the young center was averaging about 26 minutes per game and he was still playing 26 minutes per game last year, but this season head coach Dwane Casey is asking more from him as he’s kept his starting center on the court about 32 minutes a night and it’s been worth it. Valanciunas looks more comfortable and more dominant than at any point in his career.
“He’s just comfortable,” DeMarre Carroll told Pro Bball Report. “He’s demanding the ball a little bit more, getting on the offensive glass. I think he took it personal what he did in the Olympics and he wanted to come out and play.
(Valanciunas and Lithuania feel they underperformed in Rio this past summer.)
“He understands that he’s growing and this is a league where you have to grow. I feel like he’s maturing. He understands the basics of how to play the game and it’s slowing down for him.
“He’s starting off the season really hot.”
Really hot may be an understatement. Through four games, Valanciunas is averaging 16 points and 11 boards against four teams he averaged 10.2 points and 8 rebounds last season and the good news, if you follow the Raptors, is last year he owned the higher profile Whiteside he’ll be facing on Friday.
During the 2015-16 regular season Valanciunas averaged 12.8 points and 9.1 rebounds, but against the HEAT that jumped to 15.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. Then in the two head-to-head games in the playoffs against Whiteside, Valanciunas completely dominated with 19.5 points and 13 boards. Unfortunately both players ended up getting hurt in that series.
To be fair, Whiteside averaged 13.7 points and 11.7 rebounds during the 2015-16 regular season against Toronto, just below his season averages and managed 11 points and 14.5 boards in the two playoff games, so the comparisons with Valanciunas boiled down more to expectations than poor play on Whiteside’s part. This should continue to be a battle to watch with expectations that are no longer slanted by the heavier media coverage Miami enjoys over Toronto.
“I feel good, I feel good about this team and I feel good about us as a group,” Valanciunas responded to Pro Bball Report when asked about his personal success this season. “I am just trying to give everything on the court, fight for every ball, try to beat the other team.
“(Going with force,) That’s the next step. Got to bring that every night. Got to go hard, that’s how this league goes about it, going hard. I want to be part of the good group.”
“One of his strengths right now is making sure he’s attacking the offensive boards, dominating the boards,” Casey said. “If we are going to keep a big in there, he’s got to dominate. I think he understands that now.”
The improvement in Valanciunas’ game so far this season suggests he knows what he has to do and he’s doing it. The big Lithuanian is playing at another level this season.