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An In-Depth Look at Jonas Valanciunas

A guest post tackling the development of Jonas Valanciunas.

A reader named William Lou (“ddaylewis” in the comments) hit us up with a guest post. It is long but well worth reading.

It’s the dog days of the NBA offseason, and there is absolutely nothing going on. Nothing. But let’s face facts; if you’re reading this, you’re probably a Raptors junkie. My job is to give you your fix. As Jalen Rose is fond of saying, got to give the people…give them what they want.
The people want to read about Jonas Valanciunas, so I’m going to write about Jonas Valanciunas.
First, I will re-visit his rookie season and touch on his productivity. I will then breakdown how he performed on offense and defense, and suggest how he can improve. Finally, at the very end, I will make a prediction about his production in the up-coming season.

Jonas Valanciunas: A Look Back and some Boxscores

I hate sports cliches, but this one is appropriate. As soon as Jonas Valanciunas stepped on the floor last season, we all knew, in our heart of hearts, that he was going to be a special player. Go back and experience the nostalgia. You feel that rushing feeling inside of you? That’s pride. You’re proud to see a great NBA player in a Raptors jersey.
Last season, Valanciunas averaged 8.9 points per game on 56% shooting to go along with 6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game in only 24 minutes per game. Those are spectacular numbers for any rookie player. His per 36 numbers are even more encouraging. Consider the following statistical comparison (data courtesy of basketball-reference):
Settle down, settle down. The comparisons are at the end. Let’s hear more about Valanciunas’s productivity last season.
We can get a relative idea of who’s productive when we look at a boxscore, but we’re prone to biases. Advanced boxscore statistics like “win shares” apply a (scientifically determined) weighting to each contribution in the boxscore, thereby condensing a player’s production down to one singular number. Win Shares per 48 minutes tells you a player’s rate of production, and 0.100 WS48 is the production of an average center. Valanciunas posted a WS48 of 0.127 last season, ranking him 22nd in among centers (min: 1000 minutes played). He was one of only two rookie centers to show up in the top 30 (the other being Andre Drummond).
Or, to put it another way, Valanciunas was 27% more productive than the average NBA center in his rookie season. Let that sink in for a minute.
However, boxscore data has it’s limitations. If you only look at the boxscore, you’ll miss out on a lot of context. The boxscore data is excellent at quantifying how much a player contributed, but it cannot accurately tell you how they contributed. Context is important.
Valanciunas’s (stellar) Offense – The “What”
Before I dive into the fancy numbers, let me just toss out the macro shooting numbers for Valanciunas, and how they compared to the average NBA center:
As you can see, JV scored at a league average rate, but did so at a ridiculously efficient clip. How efficient, you say? His mark of 61.8 TS% was the 10th highest mark in the league last season.
Okay, so he was very efficient, but that still doesn’t tell us HOW he scored these points. Was it all put-backs and dunks? How did he put the ball in the basket?
Data from synergy sports allows us to break down a player’s usage by play, and assess how they fared in each situation. I have summarized Valanciunas’s play usage below:
Right away, we are able to identify that the vast majority of Valanciunas’s plays were post-ups, pick and rolls, cuts, and offensive rebounds (put-backs). However, this does not fully illustrate how effective he was at each play, so I crunched the numbers in a slightly different way, and incorporated his points scored per play:
In this chart, points scored per play (ie: how effective) is charted on the Y-axis, and usage is charted on the X-axis. What we can see is that Valanciunas was most effective in transition, and was quite effective off cuts, offensive rebounds, pick and rolls and post-ups.
However, this still isn’t fully informative. Some plays are just naturally more effective than others. For example, you’re much more likely to score in transition than you are in isolation. To account for this, we can look at how he ranked in the NBA at each play:
Here, we can really identify where Jonas excelled. His post game was very good and he was elite in pick-and-roll and with put-backs (now do you see it on the bubble chart?).
Valanciunas’s (stellar) Offense – The “Where”
Alright, so we now know how Valanciunas’s scoring breaks down per play, but where did he shoot from? Sure, we can probably guess that he shot his put-backs from around the rim, but what about his post-ups or pick and rolls? For that, we can peruse over his shot chart. As you can see, JV does most of his work at the rim (rightfully so), and sports a respectable jumper from within 15 feet (the second circle). Shot chart from NBA stats:
Valanciuas’s Stellar Offense – The “How” (with video!)
NBA stats also keeps track of what types of shots each player takes. The following is a breakdown of Valanciunas’s shot types (min: 18 attempts):
The most frequently used shot in JV’s arsenal was his jumpshot. Unfortunately he shot a pretty terrible percentage on his jumpers. Below are two clips of his jumpshot. Watch closely for his odd form (he seems to almost put topspin on the ball).
However, JV’s jumper makes him all the more deadly in the post. As you can see in this following play, he is able to sell the jumper and then fake past his man to draw a foul. Defenders have to respect his range, so they need to play close to him. JV is able to capitalize on this and beat his man off-the-bounce with his quickness.
JV also has an excellent hook shot, which is a must have for every big-man’s post-up game. His height and length make it extremely difficult for defenders to block his shot, and he can reportedly sink the shot with either hand:
Valanciunas’s Stellar Offense – Final thoughts
Valanciunas was one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA last season. A breakdown of his shot attempts showed that his shots mostly came from post-ups, pick and roll and put-backs. The shot chart shows that JV took the vast majority of his shots at or near the rim, and that he has a passable jumper from within 15 feet. Finally, a shot-type breakdown revealed that JV’s success in the post was likely due to his effective hook shot, and his willingness to shoot the jumper.
Overall, JV is a very talented big-man. He has polished post-moves and the signs of a passable jumper. With further development and usage, he will definitely see an uptick in his points per game average.
Valanciunas’s porous defense – boxscores, synergy and video
Defense is without a doubt the Achilles heel of many advanced basketball metrics. Boxscore data only charts defensive rebounds, blocks and steals, while Synergy data is heavily influenced by team schemes and team performance (ie: a poor rotation by player B could leave player A’s man open and make A’s numbers look bad). This is why we will look at his boxscore and synergy data in tandem with video.
The numbers suggest that defense is also Valanciunas’s Achillies heel. The boxscore data shows how Valanciunas is basically average at defense:
However, the synergy data is far less kind to Valanciunas:
Valanciunas was good in spot-up situations (although some of that can be explained by him guarding centers who were shooting jumpers), he was good in the pick and roll, but he was not a good post-defender and a pretty awful isolation defender. Given that synergy regularly mistakes post-plays for isolation (and vice-versa) for big men, I’d hazard to guess that overall, JV’s post-defense was pretty poor.
This is corroborated by both reason, and video. First the reasons. JV was skinny and light for his position, which might have made it difficult for him to restrain more powerful big-men. JV was also in his rookie season, so we should definitely expect a learning curve (“rookie mistakes”).
Below are two videos of JV defending the post. I want you to focus on how JV is completely sealed off by Nazr Mohammed in the first video, and how Nikola Pekovic just knocks him back in the second video (granted, Pekovic is a bear of a man).
Overall, Valanciunas was a below-average defender last season. The boxscore data says he’s not too bad, but a synergy breakdown revealed that he did a very poor job defending the post. This is corroborated by video, and reason, as his lack of bulk likely restricted his ability to stand his ground against most big-men.
However. there is reason to believe that JV’s defense will improve. He has reportedly put on more bulk this offseason, which would make it much more difficult for his opponents to push him around. He has excellent size and length for a center, and he is smart about defending shots (hands straight up; re-watch the videos). Finally, there’s also the caveat of his age. He’s young, and we should expect improvement based on simply on his age.
Projecting Jonas Valanciunas
By this point, we have a pretty good understanding of Valanciunas’s abilities, strengths and weaknesses. All that’s left to do is to slap some comparisons (and expectations; because he doesn’t have enough of that) onto JV. I’ve compared his per 36 numbers to the rookie seasons of some of the best centers in the NBA (via B-R):
Not bad, right? Valanciunas doesn’t look out of place at all. He shot the best percentage (FG% and FT%), while holding his own in every other category. However, I’d like to focus on one specific comparison; Marc Gasol.
Ill-Advised Comparisons – Marc Gasol
Marc Gasol is one of, if not the best centers in the NBA. He is an excellent offensive player who is able to shoot from anywhere inside of the 3-point line, while also possessing a deadly post-up game. He also happens to be an exceptional passer for his position, and he won the Defensive Player of the Year Award this past season. Does any of that sound like JV?

Well, some parts are similar, and others aren’t. For one, JV will never be on the same level as Marc in terms of passing. JV isn’t a terrible passer by any means, but Marc Gasol’s passing is ridiculous for a center (his assist rate of 21% last season was higher than Kyrie Irving’s).However, if Jonas’s bulk translates into better success against guarding post players, he may very well become an excellent interior defender. He is quick and he has excellent length. Don’t forget; Marc Gasol has not always been an elite defender, and he entered the league at 24.

Their similarities mostly lay in the offensive end. Consider their usage charts:

Both players are very post-up and pick&roll heavy (because they’re both really good at these plays). Gasol shoots more spot-ups, but Valanciunas has been working hard on his jumper, so perhaps with better effectiveness, his spot-up attempts may increase. Otherwise, at least on the surface, their roles in the offense are largely the same (although Valanciunas sees less touches than Gasol, the proportions of how their touches are used is similar).
I looked at Jonas Valanciunas from every possible angle. Valanciunas is pretty fantastic on offense; he’s already a legitimate post-scoring threat and one of the league’s best at pick and roll and put-backs. If he improves his jumper, he will be impossible to guard, and he will undoubtedly be the Raptor’s best option on offense.
Things are more concerning on the defensive end for the young Lithuanian. He struggled at defending the post (both on post-ups and isolation). However, this can partially be explained by his tender age (20) and his lack of size. With more experience, more size and more coaching, Valanciunas will likely become an above-average defender. He certainly has the size and the work ethic to make it happen.

But if Gasol and others provide comps, it’s not hard to let expectations run wild in the dog days of summer.

Many thanks to basketball-reference, hoopdata, synergy sports and NBA stats. If you’d like to play with the data yourself, it can be found here or here.

This has been a guest post from RR reader William Lou.

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