In 2001, Vince Carter led the Toronto Raptors to the second round of the NBA Playoffs and very nearly to the Eastern Conference Finals. Twelve years later, the Raptors are finally back on the precipice of greatness, led this time by sophomore centre Jonas Valanciunas.

Of course, this is Las Vegas Summer League, and “second round of the playoffs” means “quarterfinals of a very odd bracket-style pseudo-tournament” but hey, with a five year playoff drought, Raptor fans will surely take it. And beyond just the tongue-in-cheek notions of the “playoffs,” Valanciunas actually has led the Raptors to an impressive Summer League season.

The team now sits at 3-1 after defeating the Denver Nuggets 95-78 on Thursday night and will move on to Saturday’s quarterfinal against either the Portland Trail Blazers or Phoenix Suns. More importantly than their standing, perhaps, is that the successful run can earn the Raptors additional games which are additional development minutes for the quartet of roster players in attendance.

And, no surprise here, it was that quartet that did most of the damage against the Nuggets on Thursday. Leaving Valanciunas aside for the moment, the first half play of Terrence Ross, the all-around game of Dwight Byucks and the always pleasant hustle of Quincy Acy made for encouraging viewing. A few words on each player individually are in order:

Quincy Acy: The Fresh Quince played beyond his role at times, but this is the time to try that kind of stuff. Any time his feet aren’t moving is a concern because his lack of natural skill and stroke become more apparent when he’s set. But he’s almost always moving, even in an exhibition tournament, hitting the floor and banging the glass as people have come to expect from him. He’s also beginning to show a good chemistry with Valanciunas, displaying strong offensive awareness and cutting hard when teammates need an outlet. Acy finished with 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting with six rebounds but also had six turnovers, again speaking to the fact that he’s still best suited for a grinder role without many touches. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially since he’s adding “don’t lose sight of him” to his scouting report for opposing defenses.

Terrence Ross: Ross had a terrific first half, showing an aggression and a comfort handling the basketball that was lacking for most of his rookie campaign. Throughout the tournament so far, Ross had been somewhat passive and willing to shoot from outside. On Thursday, he took the ball to the hole early and often, racking up nine free throw attempts by the 10-second mark of the second quarter. He also hit the glass hard throughout, finishing with eight boards to go with his 17 points (4-of-11 shooting, 8-of-9 at the line, 1-of-4 from three).

The concern here is that he was very successful being aggressive in the first half and then more or less abandoned that approach in the second half. Sure, the Raptors went to Valanciunas more then and they had a sizeable lead, possibly decreasing the need to put pressure on the defense, but this whole tournament is designed for guys to work on things. Passivity is pretty much unacceptable, especially after a bout of aggressive success. I’m not trying to disparage Ross here because the good from the first outweighed the bad from the second, it’s just disappointing to see what you’ve been waiting for and then have it disappear.

Dwight Buycks: I’ve got to correct myself all the time saying his name in my head. It’s “bikes” not “bucks,” so all your stupid buck puns are useless, Blake (note to self: “Raptors Ride Buycks to Victory” is a beautiful headline). Anyway, consider me impressed. Buycks looked versatile and energetic in this one, putting several skills on display that make it clear why the Raptors thought enough of him to give him more than the league minimum to ensure he played in Toronto and not some other city.

Buycks finished with 18-6-10 with five turnovers, an impressive line even considering the competition. He shot 6-of-11 and displayed a nice step-back jumper as well as a quick first step. He also hit the glass with abandon and found teammates when he was able to break down the defense off the dribble. He made a few ill-advised passes and had one really bad turnover where he telegraphed a dish and had blinders on to ignore the defender, but that’s to be expected with what’s essentially a rookie point guard. Say what you will about the level of competition but hey, better he look really good against lesser competition than look bad or be invisible.

And now, you’re main event….The Lethaluanian, The Big Valbowski…Jonas Valanciunas: Heading into the tournament, I had a discussion with James Herbert of SB Nation (and formerly of RR) about Summer League performances. My point was basically that, given the circumstances of the tournament, failure was more concerning than success was encouraging. Well, if that conversation could be printed out, I’d crumple it up and light it on fire.

I can’t not get excited about Valanciunas’ performance in these four games. He dropped the loudest 15-and-12 you could imagine on Thursday, thoroughly dominating the Nuggets. At one point there was an “infection control timeout” because Luke Harangody was bleeding out of his ears because his brain exploded after a Valanciunas jam. Valanciunas was also removed from the game in the fourth quarter because the Nuggets coaching staff could be seen tapping out like they were in the Sharpshooter. Valanciunas also caused all of this on Twitter:

 

 

That last one is key – the Nuggets zoned in on Valanciunas like crazy and he still dominated them. His pump-fake is good enough to fool other bigs, he’s added a bunch of muscle to bully guys on the block, and his floater, while not always pretty, is very effective. He also hasn’t lost a single ounce of “motor” or “rig” or “want,” battling for rebounding position even with a big lead and an appreciable stat line.

Perhaps most impressively, Valanciunas’ offensive awareness and passing ability appear to have improved as well – he had a few drop-offs to cutting teammates when he was doubled and once fired a picture-perfect cross court pass from the opposite side high-block, fingertips-to-fingertips. He also added a pair of monster blocks, just for fun. (On the negative side, he does need to work to recognize double teams earlier, but that’s something he can get away with in Summer League as he faces double teams for the first time.)

I try not to defer to the expertise of someone else for analyzing players much since I am, you know, supposed to be somewhat of an analyst myself. But Ethan Strauss is one of the smartest basketball people I know (and also a bit of a cynic), so this tweet is telling about how to value Valanciunas’ performance in the context of the tournament:

 

What that tells me is that it’s not my Raptor goggles fooling me after four exciting games. Others are taking notice and thinking the same way I/we are. This is exciting, as Valanciunas appears to be developing into the type of player Bryan Colangelo sold fans on back in the 2011 NBA Draft.

Other Notes
*Dwane Casey joined the broadcast team for a bit and really made it clear that some of these signings have been to mold the team in his image. He wants the Raptors to be tough to play against and referred to “foxhole guys,” who you’d want to go to war with. I can get behind that as an identity, for sure.

*Chris Wright will probably get a training camp invite if no other team gives him a deal. He hasn’t blown anyone away because that’s not his style but for the second year in a row he’s looked capable with the Raptors. He was a team and beat-writer favorite last year, and there are worse things for your 15th man than a likeable guy who works his tail off.

*Jordan Hamilton has the makings of an NBA player. The guy can shoot and score in a hurry.