Jonas Valanciunas reaping the rewards from Raptors’ egalitarian offense

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 9: Jonas Valanciunas
TORONTO, ON - MARCH 9: Jonas Valanciunas /

The Toronto Raptors are on their way to their first conference title. It’s been a sum of their parts season – every player and coach to a man faced an offseason full of character-revealing questions needing answers.

Jonas Valanciunas may have faced the most…

Already in his fifth NBA season, it’s easy to forget Jonas Valanciunas is only 25 years old. Teammate Delon Wright is older, born 10 days prior.

One considered a veteran, the other playing significant minutes for the first time in his career. Both to this point have played critical roles in Toronto’s #Roadto60 season. While neither one of their respective success’ should come as a surprise to anybody, the way Valanciunas has gone about his transformation has been remarkable. His rise has led to almost an entire fan base to openly repent for past trade talking sins.

The slow growth curve for bigs

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The learning curve for big men has always lagged behind those of other positions. In recent years, it’s gotten even steeper with the stylistic changes to the game. In his college career, Karl-Anthony Towns attempted eight threes and this season he’s averaging over three attempts per game. Players today almost need to fit a certain mold and play a certain way or risk having their careers severely compromised. Such a reality has no positional bias either – DeMar DeRozan, Toronto’s all-time leading scorer, also stood at a crossroads this off-season. He needed to decide how he would embrace the need for change despite putting up career numbers and being one of the league’s most proficient scorers.

TORONTO, ON – MARCH 16: Jonas Valanciunas
TORONTO, ON – MARCH 16: Jonas Valanciunas /

We now know how DeRozan and Co. dealt with the mandate. Today, they sit atop the Eastern Conference standings with a comfortable cushion. DeRozan is having the best season of his career, creating five more points per 100 possessions than last season despite averaging four fewer points per game. His scoring is down and yet the Raptors are winning more.

Selfless basketball has its benefits…

…and that brings me back to Jonas Valanciunas

The Raptors big man in the middle is enjoying his best season as a pro and, much like his perpetually progressing teammate, can largely thank himself for it. Both needed to improve as passers, and they did. Both needed to introduce the three-point shot, something neither one of them had much of an appetite for to this point in their respective careers – didn’t matter, they did it. And finally, both needed to improve defensively. Valanciunas has been noticeably more mobile and aggressive defensively. DeRozan, while still guilty of the odd *facepalm* effort, has been largely more engaged on that end of the court.

Honing in on Jonas, despite struggling in March with his new found toy, the three-point shot, he’s been dominant otherwise. In seven games (prior to Indiana), he averaged 16 points to go along with nearly 10 rebounds and two assists – for the month, JV is being used on more possessions than ever before in his career.

The Raptors new egalitarian approach has elevated most everyone’s offensive game, with the possible exception of poor Norman Powell. I still believe Powell, if given the opportunity, comes up big in the playoffs.

For JV, the shift in offensive philosophy has put the ball in his hands more, plain and simple. He’s shooting more per 36 minutes. In the process, he’s actually giving opposing players a reason to believe in his pump fake prowess. Ask any basketball player and they will tell you there’s something about just feeling the ball each possession. It causes you to focus more, to be more engaged each play knowing you will get your fair share of opportunities on the offensive end.

Steve Kerr on offensive philosophy, from September 2017. I’d encourage you to watch it all but if in a crunch, start at the 5:00 mark.

He’s getting better all the time

The NBA and most other leagues of the pro variety remain copy-cat exercises at their core. Teams put their own twists on otherwise commonly employed schemes and tactics but for the most part, it’s a lot of the same stuff with execution being the main differentiator. The sort of basketball Kerr preaches is precisely what the Toronto Raptors have implemented. It’s a style that over time breeds confidence in all players involved. It requires trust between teammates and trust in players like Jonas Valanciunas – players missing, or presently without a key skill(s) – understanding their role and coming to terms with any shortcomings preventing them from assuming said role.

Toronto has long had high hopes and expectations for their big man since he was drafted fifth overall back in 2011. It’s been a bumpy road and there will be more turbulence along the way. There have also been numerous stretches of brilliance, including his pre-injury playoff dominance two years ago. He has, for the most part, found the consistency every player craves, at least partly thanks to his teammates’ unwavering trust in his abilities as well as his own personal commitment to improving in areas previously thought to be dead weight for big men.

The playoffs are close

Come playoff time, Toronto must not forget about their prized Lithuanian center. They’ve created a monster through a sort of force-feeding, making sure not to crop him out of their offensive pictures. Make no mistake, a confident Jonas in the playoffs is every bit as valuable as a confident DeMar or Kyle.

I leave you all with this…