When the Toronto Raptors made the playoffs there wasn’t much talk of Jonas Valanciunas leading the line. For Dwane Casey and every Toronto native in Jurassic Park, it was Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan who’d be getting the plaudits when they finally climbed out of the first round – something they’d struggled with mightily in previous years.
However, following steady improvement since joining the Raptors, he’s now shown the league just what he’s capable of in the playoffs – showcasing the talents which saw him named Lithuanian basketball player of the year three times.
The Raptors were destroyed 115-84 in the opening game of the Eastern Conference Finals, and they missed the presence of their number 17. But why is Valanciunas suddenly so important for the Raptors?
One of the best centers in the league
The truth is, Valanciunas has always been important to the Raptors – the playoffs have simply magnified his impact. He’s long been the anchor helping hold the Canadian franchise in place whilst DeRozan and Lowry have hit the headlines, offering rebounds and size in the key.
The Raptors recognised his significance during last year’s off-season, signing him up to a four year contract extension to the tune of $64 million. Don’t get it twisted; this is a bargain price for JV now given the increased salary available to NBA players.
However, back when he was drafted there was a lot of talk about what the NBA should expect of this Lithuanian big man.
“What happened when he first came in? The expectation level was off the charts. He’s (supposed to be) the second-best big man in Europe. No. He has so much potential to be, but he had to come in and get used to the NBA.” Dwane Casey was quoted via the Toronto Star.
“The sky is the limit for that kid and the key is patience.”
That patience has been rewarded.
Valanciunas has been on a tear throughout the playoffs for what’s been a disjointed Raptors franchise. He’s averaging 15ppg on 55% shooting, whilst also grabbing 12.1rpg, three more than he had averaged in the regular season.
Before coming down with an ankle sprain against the Miami Heat, he was the biggest reason why Toronto were causing the South Beach franchise problems – and despite squeezing by them without him, they certainly struggled against the Cleveland Cavaliers as they were blown out in game one at the Quicken Loans Arena.
Can Valanciunas be Consistent?
Going up against Hassan Whiteside is no mean feat, so there’s little question surrounding the offensive talents Valanciunas possesses. The real question is whether he can come back healthy and stay on this streak.
One man who certainly thinks so is Nikola Vucevic, who faced up against JV during the NBA Global Games this January.
“Jonas is a very good player, he’s improved a lot, he’s a big guy [with a] big body.”
Vucevic was speaking modestly. Valanciunas sizes up at seven foot and weighs over 250lbs. Add to this a 7’6” wingspan and you’re looking at a freakishly large player who can punish you in a number of ways.
The biggest way to limit his opportunities is to box him out effectively on defence, easier said than done when you consider his ability to slide by defenders as if he’s slathered with grease. If he gets the ball on the offensive glass, you’re better off taking cover, as he’s going right back up for the putback.
“As a big man like JV, you go up and you run up and down the court and you wrestle and you don’t touch the ball, it’s kind of deflating,” DeMarre Carroll says.
“That’s why you have to figure out where you can take the ball out. [Valanciunas] figured it out: offensive rebound, be physical, that’s how he gets his points.”
However, this isn’t to say you can ignore him when he’s got the ball further from the basket.
Over two-thirds of his baskets come from beyond four feet from the cup, and over the regular season, he shot these above a 54 percent clip. Over 400 of his shots have come from this range, so he forces defenders to move from within the paint – opening up lanes for his teammates as well. Even when he doesn’t have the ball he’s making the defence think.
Could he win a ring?
There aren’t many European players who can rock an NBA Championship ring on their finger and, barring a massive upset, it’s unlikely that JV could add to that exclusive group this season.
However, given Toronto’s notable improvements over the previous seasons, the odds are always growing regarding his championship chances in the future. What’s more likely, though, is an Olympic medal, something he’s yet to win outside of youth competition.
“The Olympics is the biggest deal, everybody wants to get a gold medal, it’s the same for us. I don’t want to speak for fact, we still have a long way to go, we’ve got to prepare, we’ve got to see who’s going to come and play for us and then we can talk.” Valanciunas said during his time in London.
So, even if the Raptors do follow the script and bow out of the playoffs to the Cleveland Cavaliers, it appears that Valanciunas could still have something to play for this summer.
Of course, once healthy, it will be the playoffs on the lofty Lithuanian’s mind but it will take something very special for the franchise north of the border to advance past LeBron James and co. in the east.