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Jonas Valanciunas: A pre-season star?

He has not always looked this smooth.

Despite consistent and vocal criticism of Masai Ujiri’s vaunted ‘culture reset’ – especially considering how the movers and shakers of the Raptors’ franchise remain identical in 2017-18 as compared to 2016-17 – some things seem to have been altered, at least in the pre-season. For example, the team is shooting more 3s. While this change has been widely-reported, even as far flung as The Ringer, one player’s shifting style has received less coverage: Jonas Valanciunas.

Valanciunas has been about as polarizing as the infamous white-gold / black-bule ‘dress’ (sidebar: it was white-gold). This is for good reason: his strengths are impressive, but his weaknesses have been, in some situations, fatal.

On offense, Valanciunas is a beast, capable of dominating the offensive boards, finishing around the rim, and crushing on fools’ skulls as the roll man. Incredibly, while JV only finished plays as the roll man in pick and rolls in 2.4 possessions per game in 2016-17 (tied with Dwight Powell and behind Frank Kaminsky…), he offered an insane 1.28 points per possession in those scenarios (good for 92.2nd percentile in the league). He scored in 63.8% of situations and only turned it over 8.5% of the time. In comparison, Lucas Nogueira (also very efficient in pick and rolls) turned it over 15.4% of the time. JV looks like this in the pick and roll:

He sets bone-shattering screens, rolls hard and decisively to the rim, and is a talented finisher in the paint.

However, Valanciunas has sometimes been quite passive on offense, capable of floating through games. Whether that is due to him receiving no passes from his all-star teammates Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan while they isolate against entire teams (very possible) or due to his own lack of effort (also quite possible), who can say? A theme of JV’s career has been fans split between blaming either the player himself or the system around him for his struggles.

On defense, Valanciunas has famously been roasted in the pick and roll by speedy, attacking guards, such as Kyrie Irving, Isiah Thomas, John Wall, or Kemba Walker (notice how each of the top teams in the East seem to boast one of these guards?). Some of this is certainly due to Dwane Casey asking Valanciunas to hedge too high when his man screens a guard, which is a difficult task even for mobile bigs. Here is JV offering the resistance of a pile of wet newspaper against Walker after Cody Zeller lays waste to Lowry with a screen:

Valanciunas was only in the 44.5th percentile in guarding the roll man in pick and rolls last year. Bad, but not worst in the league. Furthermore, JV is a somewhat-effective deterrent around the rim, especially when guarding players his own size. He only allowed 0.76 points per possession when defending post ups, which was good for 77.6th percentile in the league. Not too shabby! His defensive shortcomings have been noticeable but not unfixable.

Basically, JV has offered some useful skills on offense, but a team could always target him ruthlessly in the pick and roll and hunt an above-average shot anytime they so desired. This proved problematic in some fourth quarters, which led to many late-game Valanciunas benchings. He was a good player with flaws, which is true of almost every player in the NBA, including MVP candidates.

Raptors’ fans knew what the team had in JV, for better or for worse. However, in the 2017-18 preseason, Valanciunas has offered a few surprises.

On offense, JV’s assist rate (percentage of his plays ending in assists) has ballooned from a black hole-level 4.3% in 2016-17 to an impressive 11.6% this preseason, which is excellent for a center. That is comparable to 2016-17 superfreak Karl-Anthony Towns (12.7%) and world-destroyer Anthony Davis (11.0%). You could write this off to a small sample size, but the video clips of JV’s passing reveal him making passes he never saw / had the chance to see last year:

This is a simple play, but Valanciunas sees a cutter running the baseline and leads him, in stride, behind the 3-point line. This is progress. He had multiple assists in his first game against the Clippers in which he tracked down an offensive rebound and immediately hustled the ball out to a wide open Miles or Lowry for a 3-pointer. This is not advanced basketball, but it greases the cogs of the Raps’ offense, and it is not insignificant. It is winning basketball.

Speaking about winning basketball, here are some plays worth seeing in case you missed them, or have trouble believing Valanciunas Monstarred the moves of Hakeem Olajuwon or Dirk Nowitzki:

Valanciunas has never been a consistently efficient post scorer, which is true of most NBA bigs; low post isolation attempts were recently discovered to be inefficient shots. Who would have thought!? In 2016-17, JV scored a measly 0.90 points per possession out of post-up attempts, good for 55.8th percentile in the league. Shouts to DeRozan for scoring 1.13 points per possession (96.8th percentile)! JV has always looked competent in the post, even if the majority of his attempts came from the same basic moves: sweeping righty hooks, face-up jumpers, and slow fadeaways. That’s fine. He’s good at those things. But the above plays are new. A dream shake against Drummond and a fluid step-back fadeaway against Lopez, both of whom are impressive one-on-one defenders?  It looks like JV has expanded his offensive arsenal, if the above clips can be believed. Impressive stuff.

On defense, JV seems much better at moving his feet. Watch the play below, and compare it to his death-by-fire in the Kemba Walker clip above. Here Valanciunas moves his feet much more comfortably, chopping his stride to keep up with the attacking Beverley, and walling off the lane even after Lowry is taken out of the play momentarily by a screen. He even switches back onto DeAndre Jordan at the right time to prevent a dump-off pass.

Again, this is not ground-breaking basketball, but it matters for the Raptors. When a player is able to marginally improve his flaws, that matters quite a bit over the course of a season and especially the playoffs. The Cavs are a less dangerous offensive team if their point guards have more trouble creating separation against bigs. Defenses need to rotate shorter distances, and shooters have less space. These things are intertwined, and Valanciunas is making important, if slight, headway.

This pre-season, Valanciunas has remained an efficient player, shooting an absurd 68.2% in the field. He thrives in motion, catching the ball on the move and making decisive gallops to the rim. Here’s JV excelling in space as a roller against the Bulls this pre-season:

He has not always looked this smooth. The man seems to have found his stride (which, sure, has been said before during stretches, like the 2016 playoffs. Don’t ruin my fun). He has played well with both Lowry or DeRozan manning the offense and rifling him passes. I cannot say whether the Raps will revert to their isolation ways during the higher stakes of the regular season, but it seems an oft-maligned player has at least found a portion of success during the games that don’t matter.

All stats taken from nba.com

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