We distinctly remember our earliest columns on the Toronto Raptors this season, as they were filled with an almost overwhelming excitement for what was to come with 21-year-old center Jonas Valanciunas. But as we’ve described a number of times, the Raptors’ curious situation in 2013-14 started almost immediately with trade talk and failed expectations and has drawn our focus away from the constants on the team and more toward the variables, whether that is in rumor or performance. And while, sadly, the speculation is not going anywhere, we need to make more of a concerted effort to narrow the narrative back to Valanciunas, who was and is still considered the face of the Raptors moving forward, whether that is as a rebuilding effort or a contender.
There is no question, we made some pretty lofty proclamations for Valanciunas in his second season. I believe that our predictions were something in the neighborhood of 15 points and nine rebounds a game with some premature All-Star talk. We admit, the All-Star talk was ambitious and perhaps it was just enthusiasm run amok, but we don’t feel like we have to temper the expectations, especially since the Raptors are now operating with a little more clarity in their direction than they were earlier in the season when, frankly, Valanciunas must have felt like he hit the lottery when he saw the ball in a good spot.
Valanciunas has been more aggressive recently, especially in the first quarter, and his numbers have taken a noticeable spike. In his past six games, Valanciunas is averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds a game in 32 minutes. And the minutes have been consistent, with those games being 32, 31, 29, 32, 32, and 34 respectively. This is a welcome development, and what we hope is an indication by head coach Dwane Casey that he is committed to giving Valanciunas around 30 minutes a game regardless of what the game dictates. He is also averaging double digit shots in a season high five consecutive games. That is what we have been pleading for since the beginning of the season. We believed then, and still believe now, that Valanciunas’s ceiling can only be stifled by a lack of shots. This is a promising development, especially since there have only been three other times all year that Valanciunas has attempted double digit shots in consecutive games.
Admittedly, we were a little concerned about the Valanciunas role in the middle of January. While the team was having success, they were getting so little from their frontcourt that we were certain it could not be sustainable if Valanciunas and Amir Johnson continued their struggles. In fact, in the six games preceding the six mentioned above, Valanciunas averaged only five points and eight rebounds in those contests on about five shots a game. It was in significantly less minutes, also, even though he was rarely in foul trouble.
We would love to believe that this is an indication of a more fixed role for Jonas going forward, but we have thought this before after seeing glimpses of big minutes and bigger games, so we can’t be certain of what Casey is thinking. But this is the most aggressive we have seen from Valanciunas yet this season and are inclined to believe that double digit shots in five straight games is no coincidence. The Raptors are still playing well, and we have to imagine it can only get better if their franchise guy can know and feel comfortable about how he fits into a solid, aggressive young team. Hopefully we’re seeing it now.