The Toronto Raptors announced Sunday that center Jonas Valanciunas is out with a sprained left ankle, nothing more. Valanciunas is on the road with the team for their six-game trip and will be evaluated “on a regular basis,” so he said essentially game-to-game. He does not currently require crutches or a walking boot, but the swelling is pronounced.
Valanciunas injured the ankle when he got tangled with Philadelphia 76ers forward Dario Saric fighting for a defensive rebound on Saturday. Saric was whistled for a foul and after a minute on the floor holding his ankle, Valanciunas was able to take his free throws and stay in the game. He checked out two possessions later – one that head coach Dwane Casey joked was his best defensive possessions of the year – and headed for the locker room. At halftime, the team announced he had a sprained left ankle and would not return.
Prior to the stumble, Valanciunas was off to another nice start to a season. In 46 minutes, he’d scored 28 points with 19 rebounds, two assists, and two steals, looking spry defensively for the most part and carrying over from a tremendous preseason where he seemed exceedingly comfortable in and excited by the team’s system tweaks. Missing a few games could derail that momentum some, though Valanciunas has missed time in the past only to come back and refill his role without too long of an adjustment phase. It’s more of a concern as the team shifts its approach some, and the Raptors will have to hope Valanciunas feels no lingering effects on the defensive end.
With Valanciunas missing the second half last night, Lucas Nogueira was tasked with the starting in his place and turned in a terrific performance. This is par for the course, as Nogueira is quite good. It’s his inconsistency, penchant for mental mistakes, and seeming lack of durability that have precluded him from playing a major role in the past, not a lack of talent. Last season, Nogueira even found himself closing some games, posting some of the best advanced metrics not only on the team but in franchise history. Small-sample and quality-of-teammate caveats aside, Nogueira’s a useful player as a combination rim-protector and elite – elite – screen-setter and roll-man. His chemistry with Kyle Lowry is nearly unparalleled, too.
“That’s why I’ve always said 15 deep, 17 now with 2-way contracts,” Kyle Lowry said. “I think everyone stays ready. Lucas is always going to be a big part of our team. His shot blocking ability, his lob threat abilities, his basketball IQ is high. He knows that when the time is right he gets the opportunity and he’s got to take advantage of it.”
Nogueira standing as the team’s third center is a tough spot for the player but a boon for the team, and this marks the third consecutive season in which he’ll have to contribute in a meaningful way from that role. There’s no such thing as too much depth at the five, as it turns out – calls to deal Nogueira for a player at another position have always been shortsighted and undersold the Brazilian’s value – and the Raptors have at least three options to man the position while Valanciunas heals up. Nogueira would seem likely to start so that Jakob Poeltl can keep in rhythm with a very effective second unit, and Serge Ibaka could see his first minutes of the year as a small-ball center.
“It was great to see Lucas come in ready to play. You never know when you’re number is going to be called, a guy may have a stomach ache or whatever and you’ve got to be ready to perform. This is the NBA and Lucas was ready to go,” Casey said. “We don’t want to lose anybody but it’s good to have the luxury – and it is a luxury – to have three quality centers the way we have with Lucas and Jakob. Lucas on any other team would be your backup. The unfortunate for him thing is he’s playing behind Jakob and JV. And we haven’t even got to Serge at the five yet.”
The Raptors could theoretically get even funkier and try Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby as a center, though they’re probably best off putting one of those players at the four next to Ibaka in smaller looks and employing a switch-heavy approach.
All of this is to say, there’s never a good time for injury, particularly for a player as good and important as Valanciunas, but the Raptors are uniquely situated to managed a short-term absence. Once he’s back to health, there could be a bit of a re-acclimation phase, a disappointing setback given how comfortable he was looking within the new offensive system and how hard he and DeMar DeRozan, in particular, appeared to be working to find some offensive symbiosis. It’s a long season, at least, and Valanciunas will be back to playing a meaningful role again relatively soon, it seems.