Is he Hakeem yet? (hint: nope)

Last off-season, when I was naught more than a no-name blogger (still am) typing away in the dark corners of the internet (still am), I submitted an article concerning Jonas Valanciunas for publication here on Raptors Republic. Luckily, Blake and Zarar reviewed the column, and because they were starved for content in the summer my analysis was immaculate, they decided to publish it here on RR.

Looking back, I might have been a little generous with my praise. Like many others, I pinned the entirety of my hopes onto the shoulders of the 21 year old. I lavished Jonas with unearned compliments, using words like “stellar” and “excellent” to describe his arsenal of move on offense. Since I am older and wiser — and therefore more cynical — I decided to give an update on Jonas Valanciunas’ offensive development.

Statistical Breakdown

First, let’s start by reviewing his boxscore contributions. Most of Jonas’ raw offensive per-game averages have increased — he’s scoring more, he’s shooting more free-throws and he’s grabbing more offensive rebounds. The rub is that his uptick in raw production have largely come as a result of increased minutes, as his per-36 minute average has stayed largely unchanged (13.7 this season. 13.5 last season).

If we dive into his advanced metrics, we find that Jonas’ offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) has dropped from 113 to 106. As a reference, that delta marks the same difference as Stephen Curry and Ramon Sessions’ career averages. The steep drop in offensive rating is largely due to a dip in his shooting percentages, as his near-league leading true-shooting percentage of 61.9% from last season has now regressed, and his current mark of 54.7% places him much closer to league average.

Digging deeper, we find that Jonas is using a greater share of the Raptors’ possessions while he’s on the court this season, and his +/- effect on the team has jumped from +0.3 points per 100 possessions, to +5.3 points per 100 possessions.

The most interesting difference is the shift in Jonas’ possession types. He’s being used far more in the post, and he’s shied away from the pick-and-roll.

play distribution

All in all, there’s not too much that can be gleamed from the numbers alone. His scoring efficiency and general offensive efficiency is down, but he’s also grabbing more offensive rebounds, he’s shooting more free-throws, his net effect on the team is up, and he’s chowing a bigger slice of the pie on offense. So has he improved?

Play Breakdown

A more worthy exercise than number crunching is looking at the actual changes in his game with video evidence as our guide. I will partition the breakdown into two parts — detailing his capabilities in the pick-and-roll, and in the post.

Pick-and-Roll

Over his first two seasons in the NBA, Jonas has proven to be a decent pick-and-roll big man. Last season, given Jose Calderon’s presence on the team, the pick-and-roll accounted for ~20% of Jonas’ offensive possessions, and he scored a ridiculous 1.23 points per play (PPP) which ranked 16th in the NBA. This season, his unsustainably high points per play average has dropped back down to a respectable 0.99 (63rd in NBA).

Interestingly enough, the drop in point per play averages between years one and two is almost entirely attributable to Jonas’ inability to sink a jumper. Of his 67 possessions in the PnR this season, he has launched 28 jumpers and only sunk 8. Take out those 28 possessions and voila, his PPP is back at 1.23, which means that when he rolls to the rim, he scores at a near league-leading rate, but when he pops, he’s scores at a Pops Mensah-Bonsu-like rate.

Last season, Jonas shot a respectable 41.1% on shots from the midrange. That figure has dipped to 31.5% this season, which in turn has given rise to this discrepancy in the shot chart:

CaptureJonas demonstrates good awareness in the pick-and-roll. His screen-setting still leaves much to be desired — Lowry often has to ask Jonas to reposition himself — but he presents a large target, and he is adept at finding the temporary lulls in opposing defenses, especially when defenders opt to trap the ball-handler. He usually keeps the ball high which helps him limit his turnovers (only 6.1% of his possessions in the PnR result in a turnover).

Valanciunas struggles when he receives the ball in the high-post area after setting a ball screen. He’s always open for the jumpshot because defenders are far more concerned with stopping the ball-handler, but as mentioned earlier, Jonas simply cannot shoot from outside the paint. This leaves him with three options — shoot (and miss), go into his post-move, or kicking it out for a reset. Oftentimes, Jonas is indecisive and awkward with the ball, which stalls the offense. His only decent move in this scenario is to pump-fake the recovering help-defender, and if he gets them up into the air, this happens:

Post-Up Situations

Jonas’ uptick in usage this season is almost entirely attributable to his increased presence in the post. Last season, post-ups represented 27% of Jonas’ possessions as compared to 33% this season. Dwane Casey likes to establish Jonas in the post at the beginning of games, and Lowry makes a concerted effort to force-feed him the ball. He’s a decent scorer in the post, netting a robust 0.88 PPP on post-ups, which currently ranks 42nd in the NBA.

Valanciunas likes to catch the ball on the left side of the floor, but delivering him the ball is somewhat of a challenge. Despite his size, he struggles with holding his position and is completely neutralized when defenders opt to front him.

When he catches the ball, his first move is always to face up and shot-fake. His shot is flat-footed, so his fake is an easy sell, but he book on Jonas is out — he can’t shoot from midrange — so disciplined defenders just stay down. If and when his shot-fake doesn’t work, Jonas turns around and backs down his defender. He usually takes three or four dribbles before collecting the ball and galloping into the middle of the lane for a sweeping hook shot.

His primary move is effective for two reasons. One, he has good touch around the basket and his hook is fairly soft, which gives the shot a decent chance of dropping even if it catches rim. Two, Jonas leans into his defender, keeping them ground-bound, which makes his shot hard to block (unless you’re Anthony Davis).

Defenders have largely clued into Jonas’ primary move, and they’ve started to lean on his left side in an effort to take away the middle and shade him towards the baseline. Jonas likes to counter this by spinning off the pressure, and dropping a jump-hook over the defender, something that he didn’t have in his arsenal last season.

The biggest hole in Jonas’ post-game is turnovers. This season, he has turned the ball over on ~15% of his post-up attempts and he struggles mightily against double-teams. He is usually able to reset the ball to a perimeter player, but he has a tendency to cradle the ball and huddle-up when approached by the second defender. By keeping the ball low, he neutralizes his height advantage, and makes it easier for defenders to strip away the ball.

Parting Shots

All in all, despite some regression on his jumpshot, I’d contend that Jonas has slightly improved on offense. He has taken on a larger role, especially in the post — he currently ranks 21st in the NBA in close-touches per game — while holding his rate of production constant. Opposing defenses have made adjustments — conceding the jumper, for example — and Jonas has developed some counters. He has yet to take the proverbial “leap”, but the same tools and skillset that wooed us in the first place are still there.

The axillary portions of the game are still largely lost on Jonas, who sometimes looks out of sync with the fast pace of the NBA. He still needs his teammates to direct his movements on offense, and he has a tendency to be indecisive with the ball. Hopefully, these finer points of the game will be smoothed out with added experience.

The next step for Jonas should be to improve his jumpshot. If he is able to consistently knock down ~40% of his jumpers, defenders will be forced to stick closer to him when he steps out. This should benefit both Jonas — who has the quickness to beat defenders to his spot — and his teammates, who should see cutting lanes open up as a result of better floor-spacing. If the jumper improves, Jonas should have no problems with becoming the third option on offense.

Finally, if I may, I’d like to preach patience on the part of Jonas’ development. Growing pains are called pains for a reason — they’re frustrating, and unpredictable. On some nights — games against the Jazz and the Nets come to mind — Jonas will flash all the signs of becoming a consistent force on offense, and on other nights, searing images of Gustavo Ayon shutting him down will lash against our eyes. The non-linearity of the process will likely persist, and it would be wise on our parts to keep the big picture in mind. Jonas is on a journey, and as John Steinbeck once said:

“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”

Or, in modern-speak: #LetJonasBeJonas

  • DandB

    Can’t believe it wasn’t brought up, but he almost exclusively uses his right hand in all post moves. I can’t recall seeing the left, even when he spins right (with his back to the basket).

    • DDayLewis

      This is true.

    • IROR

      I can recall a few times on the right block where he spins baseline and goes left. Only a few times and only in that spot though, with limited success. It’ll come.

    • CJT

      I seem to remember him drop stepping to his left hand fairly frequently in the left low post.

  • Tinmann

    Hate to be cliché, but he’s a big.
    Look at a player like Roy Hibbert. It’s taken five years.
    Throw in the new country, now going up against the best centres in the game.
    The kid is a competitor. Love his attitude. Still needs work on both ends of the floor, but it will come.
    Hate to be cliché, but he’s a big.

  • mountio

    Its not possible to overstate how his inability to hit that 12-15 footer has hurt his offensive game. Especially when that was supposed to be his strength (along with his ability to hit FTs for a big man).

    As I read this, I couldnt help but think about people around here who often make comments like along the lines that if LF could only get his jumper back, he could be a big help to the team. Ummmm .. ya, but thats a pretty massive “if”. Its not like Jonas is as bad a shooter as LF, but shooting is so fundamental to everything, that its a pretty big “if” for him too.

    Id actually say his game at the rim has outperformed expectations .. but the J has a long way to go. Hopefully its just a confidence thing and it will come …

    • consmap

      JV has become much stronger over the summer, and IMO that’s probably what’s messed with his shot the most. Once he gets used to taking those jumpers with his stronger body I think he’ll be fine.

    • Abused Raptors Fan

      If he couldnt hit his FTs, I’d be worried. But he has solid mechanics on his FT shot, so it shouldnt be a huge jump for him to make it in game. I think its more of a confidence issue with him, as he doesn’t look all that comfortable taking it out there sometimes. I’ve actually seen practice tape where he hits the midrange jumper repeatedly without a problem.

  • Phat AlberG

    I’m not worried at all with Val, he is young big man with a nasty low post arsenal. But when he develops that 12-15 feet jump shot, it’s going open up so much of his game.

  • WhiteVegas

    JV needs to spend a summer working with Hakeem. It has worked wonders for a lot of other players. Spending his whole offseason with the Lithuania national team is going to hurt his development. I understand wanting to rep your country but he’s at a point in his career where he needs to focus on development. Look at how Demar’s game has evolved by working on it so hard over the summers, and JV is a lot closer to being really good than Demar was in his 2nd year.

  • ckh26

    Jonas needs some work on his positioning down low. Summer school with Hakeem should be in order rather than playing for the national team. He also needs a LOT of work on his ability to catch the ball in traffic. We should rent one of those units that the wideouts in football use to get reps on catching footballs at speed. Use this on Jonas till his hands bleed. Then when he calls for it on every pick and roll there will be is a reasonable assumption that the pass can and will be caught by JV in traffic.

  • frustrated_at_the_phils

    Or he can still work out with his Lithuanian NT but only with Arvydas Sabonis. That man can impart some knowledge to JV much like Hakeem.

  • Marnix Saynor

    at the beginning of the year Jonas had a pretty solid counter to his sweeping hook where he’d pivot from the middle and get closer to the basket and quickly throw up an almost unblockable lefty hook from what looked like 3 feet from the basket. But recently I watch him make the same move but instead spins further and shoots a fade away with the right hand making it a slower move and easier to block. The lefty hook made him virtually unguardable because he had a solid move and counter now his counter is weak and has cost him. Another things I watch Lowry and DeRozan and all them get him involved early in every game, but after that they look him off like he’s Joel Anthony. He needs to get touches consistently for him to be “consistent” (what everyone criticizes him for) and make an impact on the game. I put this on Lowry, Vasquez and more importantly the coach for not involving him in the 2nd 3rd and 4th quarters. Valanciunas is my favourite Raptor and it pains me to watch him be consistently looked off by our guards. #Valanciunas4MVP

    • Abused Raptors Fan

      Agreed. That might be part of his regression in PnR efficiency, as I think sometimes he doesn’t even expect the ball and gets it halfway to the post and out of rhythm. What blows my mind is that right after the trade, the team went to Amir and JV in the PnR and both put up huge numbers over a stretch of like 10 games where we only lost twice. Then all of a sudden, they went back to a perimeter heavy offense.

      • Ian Reynolds

        the lack of PnR is frustrating. Some of the best PnR play I’ve ever seen from this team came when Jose, Amir, and Ed Davis started working out a chemistry there, in which Amir was the roll man and Ed would dive in depending on where his defender helped out. It turned Amir into a better passing big man, too. I’d LOVE to see JV take over Ed’s position there, especially since he’s much bigger and in theory should be harder to handle. If Amir or 2Pat can develop that roll-man chemistry with Lowry and Greivis again, then JV should be a huge benefactor.

    • Ian Reynolds

      Re: The establishing him early in the game thing – it’s kind of like using the run to set up the pass, but then passing every single play the rest of the game. What good is “establishing him early” if he never touches the ball after that?

      I’d struggle with my decision making, too, if I only got the ball once every 5 minutes.

  • TRR

    He’s still not very good in NBA 2K14

  • morgan c

    I know he’s only 21 and it’s his second season. So it’s completely fair to assume he can still be an all-star level big man in this league. Hopefully, he will be. But I think it’s also fair to say that he isn’t developing as quickly as many had hoped / the team had probably hoped for him. The touch around the rim is inconsistent, which is a bit troubling as that was thought to be the best part about his offensive game. Defensively, is where he really concerns me. He seems to fundamentally lack an understanding of his role as part of a larger defensive scheme / help defense. He doesn’t seem to be very cerebral. I know this comes with experience, but he honestly looks to have regressed as a help defender this year. He needs to embrace being a big center, not a “quick skill guy.” Must add 20 lbs, minimum and that’s the bottom line. I’d rather have a plodder bully that can intimidate and play like a real center (Pekovic), than a tweener type that gets pushed around by half the centers in the league, as he currently does.

    Okay, that was a bit harsh. Love JV and hope he gets better. But he is far from a franchise player right now and must improve significantly going forward. Right now, he’s barely a top-10 center in the league, and anyone who says he is “one of the best” is a homer.

  • Pingback: Can Jonas Valanciunas Be the Toronto Raptors’ Playoff X-Factor? | Distinct Athlete()

  • Pingback: key4 geo1 | key1, geo1 | key5, geo1()

  • Pingback: Can Jonas Valanciunas Be the Toronto Raptors’ Playoff X-Factor? » First Web Market()