All season long, Kyle Lowry has acted as a vocal mentor for Raptors’ second-year centre Jonas Valanciuas. He’s prodded him on the court, he’s supported him in the locker room and worked to get him the ball when the rest of his teammates feel free to ignore him.
However, Lowry may have given Valanciunas’ season the biggest shot in the arm yet by getting his knee bruised against LeBron James in Miami last week. Since that game Lowry has been sitting and Valanciunas has been thriving. With Toronto’s offensive options limited by Lowry’s absence (that’s 17.4 ppg sitting inactive), the Raptors have had to go in search of points elsewhere, and Valanciunas has been the key beneficiary.
In the three games since Lowry’s injury, Valanciunas’ has seen his scoring spike from 11.0 ppg to 18.0 ppg and his involvement in the offence jump to a heretofore unseen level. All of the Raptors are now working to get him involved in the offence, none more so, perhaps, than fill-in starting power forward Patrick Patterson.
What is happening now is the Raptors are putting a great deal of responsibility on Valanciunas’ shoulders and he’s handling it admirably. That not only helps his confidence but it builds trust between him and his teammates. When teammates feel like they can trust a young player to make smart plays when he has the ball in his hands they are more likely to let him see it. Moreover, when that player proves dependable enough to bail those same players out when they get themselves into tight jams (especially guys like DeMar DeRozan who see frequent double teams) they actively begin looking for more and more ways to get that player the ball.
That has a trickle-down effect as well. With increased touches comes an increased belief that you’ll see the ball again. That means that when Valanciunas gets a touch he doesn’t feel obligated to make a big play with it. He blends into the offence better, acting as much as a facilitator for the greater good rather than as just a token option, which (again) breeds more trust and confidence in his teammates.
This is doubly important given the time of year its occurring. The Raptors were in a visible funk heading into their first postseason in seven years. With Lowry out, however, the club has to find other ways to maintain productivity. Lowry had become the team’s safety net; a last minute bail-out option that was being overburdened too often in late-game situations. When the Playoffs roll around and teams get that much more time to key-in on scouting one team that was going to spell trouble. Lowry’s injury has forced other players to step-up and alternate avenues to be explored. While it hasn’t caused a reimagining of the way the teams plays, it has reminded guys that there are ways to win games without Lowry hurling himself into the fray on each and every possession.
What remains to be seen now is whether or not the club will stay active at getting Valanciunas looks throughout the game and how often Valanciunas sees the ball when Lowry returns. Again, Lowry is one of the few Raptors that has consistently looks to keep Valanciunas involved in the on-court action, but DeRozan, Terrence Ross and Valanciunas’ fellow big men need to keep looking for him, as well. Opposing defences are going to be planning to lock-in on those perimeter guys because Toronto’s offence is so perimeter-heavy; having Valanciunas be a consistent part of the team’s attack will make a huge difference not just in getting post scoring but also pulling some defensive attention away from the club’s big scorers.
Let’s also keep in mind that, in a lot of ways, this season is found money for the Raptors. They were thought to be setting-up for a rebuild, but instead they’ve pushed themselves into an unexpected postseason berth. This is a golden opportunity to test the mettle of the core players that Masai Ujiri has (mostly) inherited before having to make some big decisions about the teams’ future this summer. Valanciunas remains a huge part of those future plans, and the team can only benefit by seeing how he responds to the pressure of the Playoffs as an active participant in the proceedings. Let’s face it, when Valanciunas is involved in the offence he is also more locked-in on defence, more apt to rebound, box out and set good screens and that that makes it easier for Dwane Casey to keep him on the court throughout the game and, most importantly, in crunch time. This little burst of effectiveness, brought on by Lowry’s injury, has given Valanciunas a platform to earn trust and confidence in the postseason – now the team just has to keep riding it.