Jonas Valanciunas is a big part of the Toronto Raptors’ future plans. (Photo by Matthew Addie/Flickr.com)
Jonas Valanciunas is far from being a household name and he is not a candidate for NBA Rookie of the Year.
However, the 6’11”, 231-pound center from Lithuania is a major part of the blueprint for the Toronto Raptors next season and beyond.
Drafted fifth overall in 2011, the 20-year-old played an additional year for Lietuvos Rytas of the Lithuanian Basketball League before making his debut with the Raptors this season.
In 50 games played (45 as a starter), Valanciunas has averaged 7.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and slightly more than one block in 21.8 minutes per contest. He has produced his scoring numbers efficiently, taking just 5.8 shots per game and connecting on 53.3 percent of those field goal attempts.
Prior to his arrival in the NBA, Valanciunas played professionally for three seasons in Europe—beginning his career at the age of 16.
One of the biggest challenges for a rookie, particularly centers, is adjusting to the speed of the NBA game, especially on defense. Valanciunas is no exception, according to Raptors coach Dwane Casey.
Also known as the “Big V,” he showed promise in the team’s home opener, a 90-88 loss to the Indiana Pacers, notching 12 points and 10 rebounds while going toe-to-toe with 7’2” center Roy Hibbert.
His performance and playing time were inconsistent over the following six weeks, but Valanciunas was able to leave his mark on the stat sheet in a handful of games. On Nov. 25, he scored a season-high 22 points on 9-for-13 shooting in a loss against the San Antonio Spurs.
The rookie missed games due to an injury
Valanciunas’ development was hindered, though, by a finger injury that caused him to miss 18 consecutive games in a stretch that included the entire month of January.
When Valanciunas made his return at the beginning of February, he was faced with more than just the task of working his way back into game shape.
The rookie additionally had to adjust to a new teammate in Rudy Gay—acquired from the Memphis Grizzlies in a three-team trade that also saw starting point guard Jose Calderon moved to the Detroit Pistons. Kyle Lowry then moved from his backup role and became the point guard in the Raptors’ revamped starting five.
Upon his return, Valanciunas continued to see major fluctuations in his playing time, ranging from two to 34 minutes. In only a few instances were his minutes limited due to foul trouble. Instead, he returned at a time when the Raptors had gained some ground on the Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
But when those hopes were dashed several weeks ago, the focus for the team appeared to shift to the development of Valanciunas and fellow rookie Terrence Ross, the winner of the 2013 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest.
Valanciunas has played 29-plus minutes in four of the last five games, scoring an average of 14 points and pulling down 7.3 rebounds.
Developing Valanciunas is a major priority
The importance of Valanciunas getting those minutes cannot be overstated.
This may not be a widely-shared opinion, but I compare Valanciunas’ game to the skill set of Andrew Bynum of the Philadelphia 76ers. Both are tall, long, lanky and athletic players who do most of their work close to the basket on offence and protect the paint defensively with their ability to block shots.
Bynum, who was traded to the 76ers last summer, but has not played this season due to injury, did not produce numbers similar to Valanciunas until his second season with the Los Angeles Lakers, the only time he has ever played 82 games.
In 60 games last season with the Lakers, shortened to 66 games due to the lockout, Bynum averaged 18.7 points, 11.8 rebound and 1.9 blocks per game.
It may take Valanciunas two or three more seasons to get to that level, but that is the kind of production I anticipate based on what I have seen from him in 2012-13.
Big men typically take longer to develop, so patience is the name of the game. This differs from guards such as Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls and Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers who have had more noticeable and immediate impact on their respective teams.
Valanciunas receives an “A” from me for this season because I think he has done everything the organization has asked of him as far as developing his game and preparing for next season when his performance can more fairly be judged in terms of wins and losses.