This was a guest post from Atique Virani.

When Bryan Colangelo was essentially fired from the basketball side of the Toronto Raptors organization, most observers believed it was the right call. The Raptors are very nearly capped out, with too much money tied up in the contracts of DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Landry Fields and Andrea Bargnani, and their draft pick is headed to Oklahoma City because of the Kyle Lowry trade, the ramifications of which are still to be seen. With all of that said, there is still reason for hope in Toronto, and that reason comes by way of none other than Colangelo himself: the young Raptors frontcourt duo of Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas.

To date, the signing of Amir Johnson to a long-term deal remains Colangelo’s crowning achievement. Even the drafting of Jonas Valanciunas, who seems more and more awesome with each passing day, didn’t require the prescience, faith, and intelligence that an investment in the young, raw, extremely athletic forward out of Los Angeles did. And although Colangelo’s return on that investment wasn’t enough for him to keep his job, it has provided Toronto with one of the rarest of NBA assets, as described by Zach Lowe: a “big guy who can play both ends at a B-plus level.” The best part, for Raptors fans? Johnson is just 25 years old, and he’s shown the drive and ability to add to and refine his game. Amir could start on maybe half the teams in the NBA next season, and at $6 million a year, that makes him one of Toronto’s two or three best assets.

There’s not much to be said about the big Lithuanian rookie. Injuries (and a lack of success) dropped him from the national spotlight, but also helped him come on strong at the end of the season. His placement on the 2nd All-Rookie team seems fair. It’s a season long honor, and Jonas wasn’t great for the entire season. But what he showed since he came back from the injury has me convinced that he’s destined to be the second best rookie of the class, after Anthony Davis. He’s got a surprisingly smooth offensive game, and his defensive potential is just waiting to be mined. If all goes right, he might be able to hit his projected ceiling, that of “Tyson Chandler with a jump shot.” But it’s still early.

When these two players are paired together, Toronto has a frontcourt that might one day be the centerpiece of a good team. According to, in the 465 minutes they played together, Toronto scored approximately 1.08 points per possession (PPP), as opposed to their overall mark of approximately 1.06 PPP. This marginal increase in offensive efficiency was accompanied by small improvements in Assist Percentage, Effective Field Goal Percentage, and True Shooting Percentage. It’s on defense where this young frontcourt made it’s greatest impact, though.

As you can see from the table below, Toronto’s defense got noticeably worse when either one or both of Amir and Jonas were off the court. The 655 minutes with neither big man playing were especially harrowing, as the Raptors allowed opponents a rather horrific PPP of 1.144, along with an eFG% of 51.4 and an average two-point shot distance of just 7.92 feet. With Amir and Jonas on the court, those numbers improved dramatically, to .998 PPP, 45.8%, and 9.09 feet. Opponents were forced to rely on midrange jumpers more, and shot dramatically worse at the rim. And because the frontcourt was so adept at turning away intruders to the paint without needing help, lineups with the two young big men even gave up fewer three-point attempts, too.

amir jonas

It’s possible that this has become overly optimistic. Amir and Jonas played together for only 465 minutes, and that’s not just because Dwane Casey really likes Aaron Gray. Amir still fouls too much, and Jonas is still prone to missing rotations. But what the Raptors have for the first time in a while is the chance to forge a real identity around a pair of young, and perhaps most importantly, cheap, players. That’s an opportunity that a lot of teams in the league never have. Whoever the next GM of the Raptors is, he’d be wise to take advantage.

This was a guest post from Atique Virani.

  • CalgaryRapsFan

    I still think Amir is ideally suited to the role of backup PF / 3rd big.

    The stats indicate that the pairing of VJ/AJ was the best C/PF pairing on the team. However, I would strongly argue that such facts point more to the lack of quality depth at those positions, rather than the relative talent/potential of actual pairing itself.

    My hope remains that DeRozan is traded for an upgraded starting PF (ie: Millsap), allowing Amir to slide into that 3rd big role, while also alleviating some of the scoring pressure from Valanciunas.

  • ItsAboutFun

    Thanks for the rare positive post! Some say Amir is best for the 3rd big, but I don’t really care if he’s 2nd or 3rd, as long as the other of the 3 works as well as those 2 together. No doubt we need another top 3 C/PF. Gray and Acy are fine for 4th and 5th big, but we need a 2nd/3rd who can play both positions. If we can get someone better than Amir, wonderful, but I don’t know if that’s possible right now. A promising young guy to develop along with the rest of the youth (even Amir at 25) would be my target, or a griity vet with some form of all around game left in him, and some mentorship bent.

    • Vin The Great

      Thomas Robinson is someone we should go after since Houston has apparently made him available to clear cap space for Dwight. We could offer Ross + some expirings (i.e. Telfair, Anderson)

      • Tim W.

        Houston is looking for immediate cap relief, not expiring contracts, so they can sign Dwight Howard. The Raptors can’t do it because, thanks to the Rudy Gay trade, they have zero cap space.

        • Lucas

          Directly, that’s correct. But nothing is stopping them from doing a 3-way trade, where a team with cap space (and maybe no need for a PF) gets Ross. Something like:

          Given that we have our starters on the wings locked up, plus have a solid backup wing in Fields, I’d rather have a more highly rated PF as our 3rd big than Ross as our 4th or 5th wing player.

      • ItsAboutFun

        I saw that Houston is looking to unload Robinson. I don’t know if he fits the bill though. I haven’t seen enough of him to have much of an opinion one way or the other, but it’s not a good sign that a 5th overall pick is being unloaded from his 2nd team after his rookie season.

        • Wilson

          Sacramento traded him because the Maloofs are terrible basketball owners. Houston wants to trade him because they’d rather have a 20/14/2 blocks, 1.5 steals big man instead. Neither is an indictment of Robinson’s talent or value.

  • jjdynomite

    Solid post Atique. Amir, Jonas (as well as Lowry, well, for one more season) are the only three Raptors who are undervalued based on their salaries. Everyone else — except for the jury being still out on Ross — is either woefully overpaid or replacement-level. That is a huge indictment of Colangelo.

    Having bigs that can block shots and intimidate the opposition is very important, especially given the lack of true Cs in today’s game (at least, compared to the 70s-80s-90s). If you note in this blurb about last night’s game — — Roy Hibbert has forced the King to change his game into becoming more of an outside shooter, which is impressive given how LeBron has the most efficient inside game from the SF position that the NBA has ever seen. Good thing Colangelo traded the rights to Hibbert for 41 games of a broken down Jermaine O’Neal.

    Man, I would have paid good money to be a fly on the wall during Colangelo’s presentation to Leiweke about all the excellent transactions he has made in his 7-year plan to turn the Raps into a perennial playoff contender.

  • Vin The Great

    Actually Jonas is not in the same draft class as Anthony Davis sinice he was drafted in 2011

    • morgan c

      Right, but they are the same rookie class.

  • SR

    Very interesting stats re: the defensive impact of Amir and JV as a pair.

    Amir’s not going to be an all-star PF, but he could easily be the 4th or 5th best starter on a very high-calibre team. His contribution is solid and his salary is very reasonable. If he is going to be a starter, they could really use a big backup 4/5 who is a little more capable than Aaron Gray, since Amir is undersized.

    The biggest indictment of Colangelo is that this team missed the playoffs, has no draft pick this year, and will have the 8th highest payroll in the league in 2013/14. Holy Sh*t.

  • morgan c

    Great post

  • Dude

    It’s too bad we didn’t keep Ed Davis. The three of them would have made a decent 1, 2, 3.

    Actually, what’s really great about Amir and Jonas is that they genuinely seem to like playing for Toronto, much like Calderon did. They’re a great core for team chemistry to be built on.

  • Statement

    Very good post.

  • Guy

    An article was written about something noteworthy & positive. Compared to some of the ‘expert’ sermons posted on here, this was quite refreshing. Anyone else find it interesting that it came from a ‘Guest’ writer?