Raptors Lose, Jonas Wins

A few words about the game, followed by some praise for Jonas’ WHOA BOY! line (17 points, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks)

Watching the Raptors nowadays is like watching a Fast & Furious movie; you know exactly what you’re getting (RIP Paul Walker).

Take today’s game. The Raptors went up against a superior (read: from the Western Conference) foe and the better team won. The Raptors jumped on the Nuggets early (which makes sense given that it was the equivalent of playing at 11 AM) and grabbed a 15 point lead at one point. Demar was hot early, sinking 4/6 from the field, including a three-pointer, and Jonas worked his butt off (more on this later).

Annndddddd then the familiar storylines kicked in.

  • The Raptors’ horrific bench was thoroughly outplayed by Denver’s bench (71-16 points scored in favor of Denver)
  • Gay and Derozan, stopped moving the ball and reverted to playing more iso-ball which killed the offense
  • Derozan cooled off after the first (okay, VERY COLD, he shot 1/8 after the first quarter)
  • Once Denver found their footing, they started running the Raptors out of the gym
  • Dwane Casey made some rather questionable coaching decisions

So rather than regurgitating the same narratives, I decided to be positive and focus on the only positive from this game – Jonas Valanciunas’ had his best game of the season.

[Quick Reaction: Raptors 98, Nuggets 112]

[Sign up for Winter War: RR’s 16-Team 3-on-3 Tournament in Toronto]

It’s been a frustrating season for Jonas. After finishing last year with such promise and aplomb, Jonas Christ Superstar was the lone shining star on this mishapen pick-up roster. Discussions of his promise and potential carried us Raptors fans (and aspiring bloggers) through a painfully boring off-season. Some of us dared to dream big, boldly thrusting Jonas into the conversation for “top-10 center in the NBA”. Others were more hesitant, dutifully nothing that he’s still only 21 years old and they hedged their expectations accordingly, but all of us, each and single one (except maybe “FLUXLAND”) had high hopes for Jonas’ sophomore season.

But then the season actually came, and aside from bulking up, Jonas has looked more or less like the same player. Same boundless energy on both ends of the floor. Same number of post-moves: 1. Same problems with moving too early on screens. Same nose for grabbing offensive boards. Same ineffective jumpers.

As much as we’ve bemoaned his lack-thereof, or improper usage within the context of the offense, the ugly truth is that Jonas hasn’t really been all too impressive when he’s been given the ball. He’s definitely getting frozen out of the offense for long stretches of games (basically anytime outside of the first 6 minutes of either the first or the third quarter), and he’s being used less in the pick-and-roll (20% of possessions last year, 13% this season per Synergy Sports), but all-in-all, 8.7 points per game on 47% shooting isn’t all that great.

Therefore needless to say, his 17 point, 11 rebound and 3 block performance came as a huge sigh of relief. Let’s breakdown his illustrious night.

A caveat before I go on: the Nuggets were without JaVale McGee, so they were forced to throw a combination of Hickson/Chandler (too small) and Mozgov (too slow) at Valanciunas, so it’s not like Jonas dominated Tim Duncan or anything (remember when he did? That was fun), but having said that, there were plenty of positives from Jonas.

Jonas pulls out an abbreviated version of “The Jonas”

The book is out on Jonas Valanciunas. He has one pet-move in the post: the shot-fake, two steps towards the middle of the lane, and then a hook shot (I’m dubbing this “The Jonas”). That’s the shot he wants to take, and defenders all know that it’s coming. On this play, he catches the ball in the post and Hickson bodies up on him and tries to force Jonas baseline, but Valanciunas simply over-powers the smaller Hickson and scores easily.

A Counter-Move in the Post

“The Jonas” might be effective, but defenders have figured out how to guard it, either staying back and conceding a jumper (FYI: he’s not going to shoot a jumper), or they’re forcing Jonas towards the baseline, which is exactly what Wilson Chandler does on this play. Wilson digs in, holds his ground and firmly pushes Jonas towards the baseline. Sensing this, Jonas simply spins away from Chandler’s pressure and drops in a beautiful left-handed hook.

A Second Counter-Move in the Post

Once again Jonas gets decent post-position against Hickson before going to work. Having learned from their last encounter, Hickson does a better job of boding up on Jonas and manages to keep Jonas from driving towards the middle. Jonas takes two dribbles, feels the pressure from Hickson, spins baseline and hits a turn-around jumper over the out-stretched arm of Hickson.

Pseudo Pick-and-Pop

You know Jonas is really feeling it when he pulls out the jumper. He slips the screen on this play (doesn’t really set one anyway), gets the ball at the free-throw line, and tosses in a line-drive jumper. If Jonas could sink this jumper with any sort of consistency (>45%), he’ll be a force in the pick-and-roll. He’s already pretty effective when rolling to the rim (1.23 points per possession last season, 16th in NBA), and if he’s able to pick-and-pop, defenders won’t be able to simply sag into the paint every time Jonas gets the ball.

The Defense

Jonas doesn’t have explosive vertical athleticism, but he is quick, strong and energetic. He’s still out of position a lot, but defensive awareness takes time to learn, and for his age, Jonas does seem to be ahead of the curve. On the following plays, Jonas doesn’t WOW anyone with his athleticism. He simply moves his feet, keeps himself in position, and uses his length to record the block. Verticality, indeed!

Jonas is far from a finished product. If he were, I wouldn’t have to outline his single game accomplishments, or splurge about 17/11/3 in a post-game article. However there is clearly potential locked inside the young Lithuanian. He has a lot of tools – his scoring touch, his rebounding, his mobility, his motor – he just needs to learn how to put it together on a consistent basis. In all likelihood, Valanciunas will develop into an excellent center, and he will likely don the Raptor claw (or whatever design Drake comes up with) for many years to come. In the meantime, we’ll have the pleasure of watching one of the most promising big-men in the league go through growing pains.

He’s just like any of us. He’ll have good days and bad days, which will likely culminate in us diehards waffling between suffering and rejoicing, but in reality we’re all in the same boat, trying as best we can to endure the tumultuous tides and misfortunes of life that rock our ship and sway our spirits.

Either that, or it’s late and I don’t know how to finish this column.

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