Do you need a dominant big man to win the NBA title? The Heat’s two titles say otherwise, but they remain an exception due to having LeBron James, much like Michael Jordan’s Bulls who won with Luc Longley in the middle. The Spurs (Tim Duncan), Lakers (Shaquille O’Neal), Heat without James (Shaquille O’Neal), Detroit Pistons (Ben Wallace, a 4-time DPOY) and Dallas Mavericks (Dirk Nowtizki) have had dominant front-court players who are arguably the best at their position.
History has shown that you can make do without them, but you better have transcendental wing players – we’re talking first-ballot Hall of Famers – if you don’t. Obviously, the Raptors in their quiet but hopeful quest for a title (or at the very least, an Eastern Conference crown) don’t possess either. They do have good players at every position and are allegedly constructed to rely on defense first with Dwane Casey at the helm, yet they lack that one player who dominates his position.
When you examine the roster and see which player has the potential to get there, the debate can possibly boil down to DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, or if you’re really hopeful, Terrence Ross. I’m not going to add Kyle Lowry to that list, because as great as he’s been, he’s a known quantity in the league that may very well improve, but whose ceiling is probably known and it’s not at Chris Paul-levels.
DeRozan may very well elevate his offensive game to Kobe Bryant-levels, though entering his sixth year it’s probably a long-shot, but I remain hopeful mostly because he has been working very hard over every summer. The enigma here is Jonas Valanciunas, whose projection remains very difficult to make because despite having performed well, it’s hard to pin down just what his go-to strengths are. He’s done many things very well, and yet I remain stumped as to what part of his game can be scaled to reach a dominant level.
There’s already strong evidence that his sense for the game is excellent. Other than occasions where he’s caught unaware of patrolling guards trying to swipe at him, his positional awareness with and without the ball is very good. His hesitation on the mid-range jumper aside, Valanciunas knows what areas on the court he needs to be in to get his points. Take this play for example, where he reads the Patterson drive and shifts from the baseline to the middle, which makes all the difference:
His highlights are littered with this sort of subtle, intelligent play which is found lacking in big men at his stage of development. No matter how impressive this sort of game awareness is, this alone cannot turn him into an elite player, one that could be the center-piece of a title winner. Excelling in these areas means that you’re going to have an NBA job for years to come, not make the All-Star team year in and year out. More than anything, it means that he can make reads which is fundamental to future success. Without this baseline understanding of how the game is played, a player, no matter how talented, will be destined to be a by-stander than an active participant as the action happens.
This is especially true for big men because as guards continue to dominate the ball, big men are relying more and more on making themselves useful on offense through their off-the-ball movement than simply waiting for the ball to be passed to them. Those days – the Patrick Ewing days – are long gone. In fact, even Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are starved for touches these days.
Pick ‘n roll play is another area where Valanciunas is exceptional, and one where he hasn’t been involved nearly enough given his capacity for the play. What is not talked about enough is that Valanciunas is equally proficient at the play from either side of the court. His aforementioned positional awareness and tendency to find the seam without picking up an offense foul is greatly underplayed. As long back as when he was in Europe did Valanciunas show that he was a capable option in two-man situations. Take this skill over to the NBA where there’s a defensive three-second rule prohibiting defenses to clog up the paint easily, and this becomes a major advantage of Valanciunas. Take for example this play where he’s set a great screen, rolled well, shielded the ball, and brought it to the other side for a layup.
I’m not going to dwell on his jumper much, because that is a matter of practice. A mid-range jumper might be the easiest aspect of his game to enhance because his shooting motion is adequate, he’s hit 34% of his mid-range shots last year (down from 41% his rookie year), which is not great but enough to build on.
It’s his back-to-the-basket game that can take him from being a good player to a great one. If he develops this section of his arsenal and his jump shot improves linearly and becomes average, a projection like Pau Gasol doesn’t sound like total madness. The good news is that it certainly appears that he’s got the mentality and foundational moves to be a good post-player. His up-and-under, turnaround, spin, and hook shots are of good quality, and that’s all in addition to his excellent (and I can’t overstate this) finishing ability from every angle near the rim – the man simply knows when to use glass, and when to not, which alone has proven to be a downfall of many a big man. Here’s a great move against Zach Randolph, which leaves you wanting for more:
The bad news is that he currently plays on a very guard-dominant team and has a relatively short leash. Take a look at his front-court touches per game, which basically eliminates the case where he touches the ball when in-bounding after made baskets.
You see that he’s behind players like Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, and John Salmons – this needs to change. The verdict on his passing isn’t out yet, and the Raptors need to test just how capable he is and whether he’s able to play a role similar to Josh McRoberts when he was in the high-post in Charlotte, or even Tyson Chandler or Dirk Nowtizki in Dallas – because, if Valanciunas excels at that, the Raptors socialist offense takes itself to a whole new level.
There’s another area of his game where he’s improving at a steady rate, and that’s transition. He looks to beat his man down the court, notably in the first half of games. He may not do it against mobile big men like Chris Bosh, but if he spots someone like Marcin Gortat checking him, he’ll make the push to get down after missed baskets. Something small, but important to note.
His defense is probably a topic for another post, and I’ll be the first to admit that he’s far from being astounding in this category. As a rebounder, he tends to get caught watching the play and doesn’t know when to switch from ball-defending mode to rebound-positioning mode, which leaves him susceptible for giving up offensive rebounds. If you tell Valanciunas that his #1 job out there is rebounding, he’s able to get the job done to a high degree of quality because he’ll basically shut off any help-defense sense that he has and focus entirely on positioning and likely beat out his man. It’s finding the right balance that he hasn’t mastered yet.
What the Raptors have here is a plant that needs water, lots of it. There were some reports that next year would be the one where Dwane Casey would finally hold Valanciunas accountable and make him pay for his lapses. I feel that that’s a very unwarranted approach for two reasons: 1) He already gets the hook when he plays badly so accelerating that hook would be harsh, and 2) He’s shown enough in a limited offensive role that he deserves to be a larger part of the offense, and with that come growing pains where a heavy hand may not be the best approach.
Valanciunas, entering his third season, still needs time and patience. He hasn’t been afforded the zero-pressure seasons that DeMar DeRozan or Chris Bosh had where they developed their individual games in meaningless seasons. He’s had to do his development entirely within a team setup and that will invariably slow it down, again, especially for his position. What the Raptors have here is pure potential, and more importantly, a player that has already validated many an assumption made when he was drafted. Give the man time, he’ll shine.