Somebody said some words about Jonas Valanciunas the other day which inevitably sparked the age-old debate: is Valanciunas the second coming of Arvydas Sabonis who should take no fewer than 20 shots per game or is he an obsolete dinosaur from ages past who should stick to his arts and crafts and leave the basketballing to people who can run a sub-7.0 40? As usual the answer is somewhere in between the extreme positions that people seem to take, so this is going to be a rational exploration of where Valanciunas fits right now and for the future. Valanciunas is the most polarizing character on the team so this is undoubtedly a fool’s errand(which probably makes me the perfect man for the job)
To be clear right from the start: Valanciunas will never be a defensive player of the year candidate. There is this thing that happens these days where as soon as it is suggested that someone might actually be good at something he is generally thought to be bad at or vice versa people immediately try to bring it to extremes – let’s not do that. He clearly struggles to defend in open space and like most big men he lacks the agility to defend all the way out to the three point line and recover to the rim. He still gets a little handsy under the rim which leads to some cheap foul calls and because he goes so hard in the paint on the offensive end because he’s desperate to touch a basketball he can be prone to getting beat down the floor. These are all inarguably true and perfectly valid criticisms of his defensive game.
When these are taken to the extreme and used to suggest that he’s not playable they lose a lot of credibility though. For starters, there are currently teams starting Pau Gasol, Zaza Pachulia and Cody Zeller playing top-10 NBA defense while a team starting Robin Lopez currently sits in 11th. In recent years we have seen top level defenses starting the likes of Al Jefferson and a Zaza/Ersan Ilyasova tandem. Granted, those teams had much better perimeter defenders than this Raptors squad does, but then the issue is not that Valanciunas is unplayable defensively, the issue is that the Raptors as a squad have too many subpar defensive players.
This idea that you need someone with the agility of an Anthony Davis on the inside to defend is thrown around a lot but there are plenty of ways to build a good defensive team; one thing that does seem to be entirely true is that no team has built a good defense by asking a player like Valanciunas to patrol 20 feet away from the hoop on a regular basis. The Raptors have always seemed bent on forcing Valanciunas to play a certain style of defense instead of building a defensive scheme around what he does do well. He’s wide, he’s tall, he’s immobile; scheme with that in mind the way teams like Charlotte and San Antonio do. The only thing worse than not having a big man who can extend his defense on the perimeter like an Anthony Davis can is taking a big man who can’t do it and asking him to because it’s rendering him unable to do what he is actually capable of doing – the defensive equivalent of putting DeMar DeRozan in Kyle Korver’s role.
The best course of action for the Raptors would have been picking a defensive strategy and sticking with it, allowing Valanciunas the ability to grow into it. If he becomes a proficient defender it’s going to be due to learning how to position himself to limit exposure – though training with Apollo Creed wouldn’t hurt – and that kind of learning is made a lot easier by having a consistent role and being allowed to play through mistakes and over the years Valanciunas has not really been afforded either of these.
There are things that he does bring to the defensive end of the floor that have value. He’s a deterrent to an opponents post up game – he doesn’t seem to be the brute he once was but he’s no pushover and does a very good job as a post defender. He’s easily the team’s best rebounder, with everybody else lacking the size and the fight to hold position in the paint. He’s gotten very good at contesting without fouling, it seems like the bulk of his fouls these days come from the wrestling matches in the paint than from contesting shots at the rim. There have been skills to develop and utility for the Raptors if they look for it but over the last few years they’ve shown little willingness to do so.
This begs the question, “Why should the Raptors try so hard to keep Valanciunas on the floor?” and the answer is easy: he does certain essential things at a level nobody else on the Raptors can match. He’s as good a screener as you’ll find in the league today, with a willingness to make solid contact and the timing necessary to both get his guard separation and beat the recovering big man to the rim. As mentioned before he’s the only great rebounder on the entire team and there’s been more than one game that the Raptors have either lost or allowed to be closer than necessary because of an inability to close out defensive possessions. But the real value in Valanciunas is in his offensive game, where his combination of brute force and a deft touch allow him to finish as well as anyone in the game and his consistency helps separate the Raptors from other guard-oriented offenses like the Portland Trail Blazers.
It’s not difficult to see that he’s underutilized, which is another one of those observations that prompts the jumping to extremes. No, Valanciunas is not Marc Gasol on offense but he’s also not Yinka Dare and there are more than two classes of offensive players: those who need the ball all the time and those who should never have the ball. Valanciunas is firmly in between and significantly closer to the former than the latter but his usage rate is closer to that of the latter.
When trying to determine whether a player is utilized properly as a scorer it can be useful to compare his offensive rating to that of the team, it gives you an idea of whether a scoring play for that player is more or less efficient than the team average. Given the general relationship between volume and efficiency if a player is significantly above the team rating it suggests that a scoring possession for him is significantly better than average for the team and he can stand get a few more scoring possessions – this year the Raptors offensive rating is a stellar 115.4 while Valanciunas is working on his 3rd consecutive 120+ season. Obviously there are exceptions to this – you don’t want to run a bunch of post ups for a player like Bebe Nogueira for example – but Valanciunas is obviously not one of those exceptions. He can shoot more reliably, he has post moves and counters, he’s physically imposing compared to most centers and, more importantly, he’s maintained this efficiency with higher usage in the past.
“You can’t run the offense through him” is the usual refrain from those who don’t care if Valanciunas sees the ball more or not. Nobody is suggesting that the Raptors should and there is a lot of middle ground between “run the offense through him” and “maybe run some plays for him that are not just clear outs and do it more than 3 times per game”. And maybe part of the problem is that we still look at offense as something driven by an individual and not a team concept. There is rarely, if ever, one player who carries an offense by himself and the goal should always be to maximize the contributions of everyone.
At the moment the Raptors don’t really run much for Valanciunas and what they do run is woefully inadequate. A lot of it is just clearing out one side of the floor for a post up, which was great when you had illegal defense rules in place but these days it’s an invitation to zone off weakside shooters and send a double team from the blindside. Giving him more opportunities should mean incorporating some simple but long overdue concepts into the offense: set more cross screens to help him establish position, send cutters into his field of view and run some off-ball screens for shooters while he has the ball; if he doesn’t make the best reads or have the best passing touch make it more difficult to double team him, his passing lanes a bit wider and his reads easier. Incorporate some duck ins to take advantage of the all-star guards gravity and his scoring touch. These are all things that should have been done years ago.
This is important because the Raptors great offense is not always great, in fact it’s been 16th in the NBA over the Raptors last 10 games. When you look at the scoring efficiency posted by the Raptors regulars during this stretch you can see that the they had a lot of people struggling to make anything:
Valanciunas stands out here because he’s the only player on the list who they could reasonably have involved more on the offense while maintaining his efficiency. We’ve seen the Raptors guards and shooters go cold over and over again, especially when the team needs offense most, and we’ve seen Valanciunas remain fairly steady during his time on Toronto. Giving more possessions to the steady big man as opposed to the streaky guards should level out the offense a bit; the explosions may not be as frequent but the collapses would not be either with greater involvement from one of their steadiest offensive players.
It’s also important because what we saw in November from this squad is not likely what we are going to see in the playoffs and Valanciunas has been one of the most consistent Raptors come playoff time. The goal is to be as sharp as possible and able to deal with whatever the defense throws at you and they’re not even prepared to use one of their most potent weapons in a meaningful way. Even if you only compare his usage to guys in that “offense-only center” role like Nikola Vucevic, Enes Kanter or Al Jefferson they all have a usage of 24 or greater while Valanciunas only sits at 18.8. Right now Norman Powell uses almost as many possessions as Valanciunas does and it’s definitely not because of maxed out efficiency; Valanciunas has had higher efficiency than he is posting right now on more possessions used in previous seasons.
It’s pretty obvious that Jonas Valanciunas is a player who is flawed but also underutilized; both of those can be true at the same time and barring a few crazy exceptions his proponents have merely been wanting to see the team take advantage of the skillset he has to maximize his utility. He’s not the saviour of the franchise but he’s also not the source of everything wrong with it and its become painfully obvious that the organization currently has no idea what to do with him. They ask him to dominate and he does the very next game, then one game later he sits down the stretch as the team blows a lead because the lineup they play is missing one of his biggest strengths. He’s shot a very nice 69% from the floor since those comments about dominatingwere made and he still can’t get more than 11 field goal attempts in a game. It can be frustrating because the team has always seemed to be at their best when they manage to find a way to incorporate him – in fact they’re 11-2 when Valanciunas takes 10+ shots per game and 13-11 otherwise. He may not be a future superstar but he’s clearly got something to offer and after years of paying lip service to it the Raptors need to start taking advantage of it by actively seeking out ways to get him involved in the offense, not just throwing him the ball as a courtesy once in a while.