In many ways, the performance of Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas on Friday night summed up the start to his season.
After picking up two fouls in the first 86 seconds of Toronto’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks, the 7-footer was held scoreless and didn’t take a shot in the entire first half.
But then everything changed. After the intermission, he dominated in ridiculous fashion, scoring all 20 of his points on 8-of-9 shooting while grabbing nine of his 13 rebounds in the third quarter alone.
"It happens, you know, a quick two fouls," he said after the game. "I don’t look for special motivation, I’m always motivated to play hard. That’s what I did in the third quarter.”
"You’ve got to stay ready for 48 minutes," he added. "When you’re a pro, you can’t relax and you can’t look at what had happened. You have to look at where you can get an advantage and where you can do some damage. That’s what I was thinking about.”
"He didn’t get off to a good start, but starting the second half he was masterful how he was getting position, using his size and strength in the paint and just doing a good job of rebounding the ball," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said regarding his center’s performance.
Although it was a bit of an extreme example of inconsistency, Valanciunas’ season (and career) has been marred by just that: an inability to produce on a nightly basis. When he’s on, he’s on, but when he’s off his game, he can be a detriment to his club.
Overall, he’s averaging 10.9 points and 7.7 rebounds in 20.8 minutes per contest this season.
While his minutes-per-game mark is the lowest of his six-year career, the Lithuanian punisher has an ability to completely disappear or completely dominate the interior. If the Raptors want to become a legitimate contender, they’ll need the best version of their big man for the following reasons.
He’s impossible to defend when he’s in a groove
Despite his 7-foot, 255-pound frame, Valanciunas has shown a great deal of touch around the rim and possesses a number of nifty moves in the post. When he finds the bottom of the net and is able to gain position under the rim with ease, his production often times comes in bunches, as shown in his wild third quarter on Friday:
After that dominant performance, he was assertive and productive in Monday night’s overtime victory against the Brooklyn Nets, recording 21 points on 9-of-15 shooting to go along with 13 rebounds, an assist and a block in 26 minutes.
It’s up to him to improve his consistency and it’s up to the coaching staff and his teammates to give him his fair share of opportunities on the offensive end. For example, although the Raptors beat the Chicago Bulls last Wednesday, Valanciunas went scoreless on 0-of-2 shooting and had four rebounds and two turnovers in 18 minutes of action.
When he’s on, Toronto usually wins
When Valanciunas has scored 20-plus points this season, the 28-10 Raptors have gone 5-1. When he’s attempted double-digit field goals, they’ve gone 8-2.
That’s probably not a coincidence.
As many of the top teams in the league would agree, spreading the ball around and sharing the love on the offensive end of the floor is usually a beneficial aspect of a prosperous offense. While the dynamic duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will create most of Toronto’s offensive opportunities and are the leading scorers in most games, involving the big man in the post opens up a lot.
If defenses collapse on him, he can dish the ball out to a teammate. If he gets into a groove, he could steal attention away from Lowry and DeRozan, thus making them even more dangerous. Most of all, when he’s on his game, he becomes the third member of Toronto’s own “Big Three”.
He might have a chip on his shoulder
Starting 390 of his 396 career regular-season games in his NBA career (all with the Raptors), Valanciunas is now in the second season of a four-year, $64 million contract extension. At just 25 years old, the big man went from being regarded as the clear franchise center a few years ago to someone who has seemingly been in jeopardy of losing his starting role at various points over the course of this young season.
With youngster Jakob Poeltl and the lengthy Lucas Nogueira waiting in the wings for an opportunity, it must bug him that his playing time has decreased so drastically this year. Therefore, when he steps on the court, he must understand by now that Coach Casey has a short leash on him and that he must perform if he wants to stay on the floor.
As seen in the past, certain athletes thrive under those conditions and feel as though they still have a lot to prove.
If he harnesses that type of energy, he could have more consistent streaks of strong play in the future.
If not, he will always be considered as the same boom or bust type of player that he currently is.