• Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto: Waiting for the 21-year-old Valanciunas, literally and figuratively, may have helped cost former GM Bryan Colangelo his job. But it was the right call. Valanciunas took a year to come over to the NBA after Colangelo took him No. 5 in the 2001 Draft. Valanciunas also took the better part of last season, his rookie season in Toronto, to start living up to his potential. But it's a vast potential, and Valanciunas should do even more this season.
He had a terrific Las Vegas Summer League, earning MVP honors while building on his last two months of the regular season. During those final two months, he shot 63 percent and was in double figures in 17 of the Raptors' last 19 games.
Toronto's hope is that the 7-foot-1 center makes an even bigger jump this season. The Raptors were using the words "Valanciunas" and "All-Star" in Vegas.
"He's still learning," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said Saturday. "The main thing with him is he had such a long way to go to learn the NBA, just the nuances of the NBA, the timing, the quickness ... he came in blind. We had to tell him who the players were, what their strengths were. And he missed all of training camp last year. That start [last season] was a lot of him not knowing what was going on, and getting his timing back. As the year got better, he got better."
Valanciunas has put on about 10 pounds from last season, which should be more than enough for him to be able to hold his position in the paint.
"We can go to him in the post," Casey said. "He's not a lot bigger, and plus, he doesn't need to get a lot bigger. You don't want him to bulk up too much. He's going to naturally get bigger by just getting older."
But his biggest improvements have to come at the defensive end. Fouls were a problem for him, as was understanding of the defensive three-second rules. The Raptors have worked with him extensively on the "Hibbert" (named after Roy, of course) defense -- jumping vertically to challenge shooters instead of reaching and hacking.
The combo of Vegas and playing for Lithuania in EuroBasket 2013 seems to have galvanized Valanciunas. The Raptors see a growing confidence in him.
"He's far more comfortable in the NBA games," Casey said. "More confident, moving with more confidence, understanding where to go, what to do. I thought it gave him a sense of belonging, that I belong here. He's got a little swagger from the Summer League. Just being one of our primary interior scorers will be a great year for him, quarterbacking out of the post. And defensively, understanding the nuances of the NBA, the speed of the NBA. We need a rim protector and he needs to be a rim protector for us."