Jonas Valanciunas came into the season as a wildcard for the Raptors and ends much the same. The promise he showed in his rookie season spawned much optimism, and the season confirmed why that optimism was well-founded. He remains the lever that the Raptors hope to pull in their hopes of finding a dominant player at a single position. The big man’s numbers will not jump out at you, especially in terms of PER36 increases (a modest one point increase a 2.3 rebounding bump), and to find where he improved as a player this season you have to know how he got his numbers, more than what the numbers were.

In his first season he was very much a peripheral offensive player, feasting mostly on the offensive glass and resigned to cleaning up leftovers. The pick ‘n roll play that was considered his strength heading into this rookie campaign was featured on occasion rather than consistently, and he was a victim (somewhat justifiably) of Dwane Casey’s quick hook. He struggled to establish any sort of post presence mainly due to lack of touches, and to his credit, didn’t let it affect his focus which coaches and fans were thankful for, having lived through Andrea Bargnani.

This past season Valanciunas improved in several key areas, and I use ‘improved’ only because we had not seen what he was capable of before (for all we know, he had a jump-hook in his arsenal from day one). His rookie season saw him get dislodged from post and rebounding position quite easily, prompting him to contemplate his strength:

“It was not easy because there are big bodies in the NBA, especially under the basket, in the paint. That was hard. I’ve got to train hard, my body especially, to be able to handle those guys in the paint.”

Valanciunas went into the summer looking to gain that strength and on his return impressed his coach:

“His gradual increasing his weight will be good for him. We’re not trying to rush him to get bigger, just maintain his strength. He’s got some obstacles to go against in the paint, and if you don’t have some girth. . . you’re in for trouble. He’s learning to play with that extra weight right now so we’re not concerned about it.”

The increase in strength helped Valanciunas tremendously and allowed the Raptors to run more post-oriented plays for him. He became a legitimate option as a possession initiator which contrasted the Raptors usual wing-oriented offense. He was more confident in his own abilities and was afforded an offensive mistake or two as long as his defensive focus didn’t drop. Playing through offensive mistakes gave him more confidence and as the season progressed, Valanciunas increased the diversity of his offense. Strong effective post-ups which pushed the defense underneath became more common and his finishing came through a hooks, soft jumpers, and in-traffic finishes which showcased his positional awareness.

His face-up game was always shaky, primarily due to not knowing what to do once the defense shifted on the fake. His indecision in those situations gave defenses more resolve of simply living with his jumper, because by the time he did release it, he had faked himself out of knowing what he wanted to do. This is an area where he has to improve, specifically on two fronts. First, shooting from the elbow at a higher percentage. He shot 43% from the 10-16 feet range which needs to be higher for his face-up drive game to open up. Second, his reading of the defense’s body language has to improve. There were countless times this season where he failed to punish defenders who had their body weight shifted incorrectly, or who had fallen for the fake without Valanciunas even realizing.

Being able to turn either direction on his post-ups has given Valanciunas options and has kept defenders on their heels. His finishing has significantly improved in various scenarios: leaning in after a drive, soft baseline jumpers after dump-offs, using glass on a hook, and even those tricky short angled jumpers where one doesn’t know whether to use glass or not. His finishing in traffic against defenses looking to contest has been excellent, and coupled with his improving post-up repertoire, there’s no reason to think Valanciunas won’t be a formidable offensive threat for years to come.

To flourish on offense he needs touches and often those touches have come at a risk of turnover and error-prone play. Valanciunas gets so absorbed in making a move that he loses awareness of his surroundings, allowing guards to come from behind and nick the ball from him. Even more blatant are his turnovers when he’s clearly in plain view of the guard who is dropping down to snatch the ball away. His dribbling is sound enough, it’s his positional awareness relative to would-be thieves that makes you shudder every time he’s given the ball in the post, not to mention his tendencies to hold the ball low, thus inviting theft.

To be fair to him, most big men struggle early with quicker guards roaming around their knees looking for scraps, and improving in this area is a matter of time invested, nothing more. His passing game is limited and that’s partially due to lack of consistent touches where he’s afforded to scan the defense for opportunities. When he does get the ball it’s usually with a mandate to score, and his focus shifts to that rather than look for a pass out. He looks to pass more in face-up situations where he has both hands available and a better view of the court, but even then he’s rarely one to pick out a cutter (usually because there isn’t one) and opts to pass out to the wing for a reset. It’s an area where you would like to see him improve, however this requires more than just individual motivation and more a team philosophy of playing through the center.

For next season, you would like to see him get featured more in the offense through pick ‘n roll/pop and having a reliable mid-range jumper will give him a greater chance of success in those two-man situations.   In the block, he’s a one-move player where once he makes a move, it’s the only move he has.  If that move is negated through good defense, he struggles to pass out or find alternatives.  Finding his feet in those pressing situations, by perhaps switching hands and using better use of the pivot foot, is the next level of play for him.

Defensively, Valanciunas used his improved strength to up his ORB% by an impressive 3.3%, while averaging 8.8 rebounds per game, a 2.8 rebound bump. After being pushed off the block too easily too often in his rookie season, he dedicated his summer to increasing his strength and presence in the paint, and it paid off. A victim of cheap, undisciplined fouls his rookie season, he devoted himself to the principle of verticality. He was consistent in not bending his arms when called upon as a help defender or defending one-on-one deep in the paint, which enabled him to stay on the floor longer and be, at the very least, a presence on defense.

On the other hand, he took the verticality principle to heart, often mechanically relying on it to stop offensive players when a legitimate block attempt would have been more suitable. He clearly listens to his coach, almost to a fault. Knowing when to use his length and athleticism to defend versus when to stand back and plead not guilty to the foul is summertime work for Valanciunas, who will be working with Hakeem Olajuwon as many big men do. As much as Olajuwon can teach him about offense, it’s the defensive end where he might be able to influence him the most on account of Valanciunas being an active listener and a good pupil.

He allowed attackers to shoot 51.1% at the rim last season. His rim-contest has to improve, whether it be through picking up more charges or simply by contesting better.  If that wasn’t enough to work on in the summer, he also needs to improve in his defensive mobility.  His hedge play in defending guards improved from his rookie season, but is nowhere at the level where Dwane Casey can deploy him in the hopes that he’s able to pressure up top and track back in time.  That’s an area where Valanciunas can carve out an identity, much like Tyson Chandler has.

He’s officially listed at 231 and is likely about 10-15 pounds more than that. His ideal playing weight, given his skill and body type, is somewhere around 250 pounds assuming he’s adding strength more than bulk. He’s not the Roy Hibbert (290 lbs) type of center who lumbers in the lane, pushing people around with his bulk on offense and using wingspan and reach to defend. Valanciunas is an equally physical but more subtle player, and if he’s to use someone as a role model, the 250 pound Tim Duncan will do fine. It’s easier to see Valanciunas developing his skills along the same contours as Duncan more than a bulky center.

All in all, it was an good season for Valanciunas where he progressed from being a player labelled as one with potential, to realizing portions of that potential while giving observers full confidence that he has the mindset and dedication to realize it.