The timing is better than ever for the Toronto Raptors to trade Jonas Valanciunas, but has he truly become an expendable piece of Masai Ujiri’s vision?
The Toronto Raptors shocked a great deal of people on the night of the 2016 NBA Draft. Although the draft class was generally pegged as underwhelming, there was a working theory that the Raptors would select a perimeter player or power forward to complement the current core.
Instead, revered president Masai Ujiri selected center Jakob Poeltl at No. 10 overall—a move that conflicted with the structure of the roster.
Poeltl was a projected lottery pick with Top 10 talent and potential, but he played the same position at Jonas Valanciunas: Center. Valanciunas was selected at No. 5 overall in the 2011 NBA Draft, and was coming off of a strong showing in the 2016 NBA Playoffs.
As ESPN color commentator Jeff Van Gundy consistently stated during postseason broadcasts, Valanciunas’s offensive contributions aren’t quite enough to overshadow his defensive inconsistency.
Knowing that to be true, the selection of Poeltl, who was regarded as a potentially elite defender, elicited some measure of intrigue as far as Valanciunas’ future with the organization is concerned.
Fast forward to June of 2017 and Michael Grange of Rogers Sportsnet reported that the Raptors were looking to move Valanciunas at the 2017 NBA Draft.
Toronto kept Valanciunas on the roster, but it’s fair to question how long that will last.
Summer League has limited value, but Poeltl is lending credence to the growing belief that Valanciunas is expendable. He’s dominating the boards, scoring with efficiency, and displaying a more well-rounded offensive game than he flashed in 2015-16.
Poeltl will need to perform on a significantly larger stage than Summer League, but his emergence could be what Ujiri needs to see before moving Valanciunas.
Poeltl is currently averaging 14.7 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 1.0 assist on 69.0 percent shooting from the field at Summer League. He’s setting sturdy screens, rolling hard to the basket, and finishing in a number of different ways around the basket.
Perhaps more importantly, he’s putting his 7’0″ frame to use on defense with improved footwork and mechanics against the pick and roll.
If Poeltl can carry this success over into training camp, Dwane Casey could be inclined to give him minutes. He averaged 11.6 minutes per game as a rookie, and could go as far as doubling that number in 2017-18.
That’s merely speculation at this current juncture, but this is an excellent start to the former Utah Utes center’s second season.
It’s also worth noting that Serge Ibaka, who recently re-signed with the Raptors, expressed his desire to play center. If Dwane Casey were to start Ibaka at the 5 full-time, that would likely push Valanciunas down to the bench.
In that instance, Poeltl could emerge as that more viable option to play in a backup role—both due to defensive value and financial reprieve.
Valanciunas will make $49,617,978 over the next three seasons, which includes his 2019-20 player option. Thus, if the Raptors were to relegate him to the second unit, they’d be paying a backup over $16 million per season.
Valanciunas has the tools to be a high-caliber player in another situation, but if Ibaka and Poeltl are the future at the 5, then he may have lost his place.
At this point in time, a trade would be mutually beneficial for Jonas Valanciunas and the Toronto Raptors.