There is something to be said for momentum when trying to develop young players.
It may just be a lack of perception, or me trying to make a connection that doesn’t exist, but when I watch NBA games, and specifically young, raw players with big potential, I see a pattern of use that concerns me a little. Too often, after a short stretch of offensive success—or perhaps “brilliance” even—the team goes away from the player and the momentum he was building with whatever modicum of success he was having. It’s as if the coaches are essentially saying, “That’s enough, let’s quit while he’s feeling good because there will inevitably be a mistake and then his confidence will disappear.”
That’s frustrating to watch. And no player or situation epitomized that perception more than Jonas Valanciunas and his Toronto Raptors. Watching him this year was a continual letdown, and not even because of a lack of good things that I saw on the court. I saw plenty of good things, probably enough to cement my feelings about him as the true future of this franchise and their anchor in the still-unpredictable Eastern Conference.
The good things, though, never seemed to compound in the way that I had hoped. Obviously, the Raptors coaching staff did a whole lot more right than wrong this season in what was considered a considerable success, but there was still something to be desired in how Valanciunas was utilized.
I used a number of columns over the season to lament the lack of consistency in Valanciunas’s aggressiveness, approach, and overall use. I remarked, continuously, about five or 10-game stretches where Valanciunas would shoot a high percentage but have an almost inconsequential number of attempts. The way he would accumulate 3-for-4 or 4-for-6 games was maddening to witness, especially considering that much of the aggression and success would be in the first quarter. It was obvious that coach Dwane Casey and the Raptors wanted to establish him early, but it was so rarely sustainable that it led to more frustration than satisfaction about his progress.
So now we come to the 2014-15 season. I’ve already spoken about Terrence Ross as an ideal candidate to break out and give the Raptors a bit of a new dimension for the increased expectations. And while Ross has plenty of room to improve, he still isn’t the talent that Valanciunas is.
So what can we expect in year three? How much improvement will Valanciunas have to show for the Raptors to take that step I’ve been debating? I’d love to say that we can expect a whole lot; I’d love to say that he will this upcoming season will be what I predicted for him before last season: a fringe All-Star selection and the guy who has established himself as the face of the Raptors franchise.
Even with the ascension of DeMar DeRozan as a legitimate All-Star last season, I’m not sure that he has significantly more to offer other than refinement. I’m not sure DeRozan can be the pinnacle player on a team competing for championships. Of course, no more than two months ago I was writing about the San Antonio Spurs’ model of a collaborative effort gone perfect without a superstar on the roster. While that is an idyllic idea, no one is going to replicate that Spurs model. If the Raptors are to make the push into the upper echelon of the NBA, it will have to be with Valanciunas as their horse.
But if a big stat and influence leap doesn’t come next season, I am going to be thoroughly questioning my proclamations. But it wouldn’t be on Valanciunas’ ability.
And I could talk about stats or efficiency or comfort level in his transition from year one to two. I could do that, but everyone can see that he’s got it. It will be about how the Raptors view him going into next season. I can point to the playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets last season. Every game started nearly the same way: a super aggressive Valanciunas being fed the ball and crashing the offensive glass at every opportunity. Then, after that initial rush, the philosophy started to regress back to the “safe” option again (DeRozan and Kyle Lowry dominating shots and questionable ball movement).
Take Game 3 of the playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets, for example. Valanciunas finished the game 4-for-4, three of which occurred in the first eight minutes. He took one more shot without being hampered with significant foul trouble. Then in Game 4 he only took three shots, making them all. In Game 6, too, Valanciunas was 4-for-5 from the field and scored when he was given the opportunity. Why was he not given more of them?
This upcoming season the philosophy has to be definitive. Sure, Valanciunas needs work on the pick-and-roll and there are plenty of things to refine, but he has the ability to do it, and do it exceptionally well. The Raptors know it, and the ascendency of their franchise depends on it. The team can’t stifle his, or their own, momentum.