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3 Things Jonas Valanciunas needs to work on this summer

Play making, lateral quickness and honing an 18-footer should top Valanciunas’s offseason to-do list.

In the 90s and early 2000s, there wouldn’t be this much hand-wringing over a player like Jonas Valanciunas. A durable, hulking, hard-working 22-year-old center with tremendous touch and a nose for rebounds would be viewed as a centerpiece, not the frustrating enigma as he is perceived today.

But the game has changed. Most notably, the traditional roles for bigs have gone by the wayside. Bigs are no longer pigeon-holed into making a home out of the low block. The emphasis now centers on spacing, rim-protection and pick-and-roll play. The league is migrating towards playing “small” and maximizing shooting and playmaking, which cuts against the skills of someone like Valanciunas, who is somewhat a relic of the past.

Let’s start with Valanciunas’s strengths. He’s developed into a strong post scorer. When he gets his man in one-on-one, Valanciunas has the strength and size necessary to get into the middle of the lane against most pivots. There, he wields a sweeping right-handed hook shot that falls more often than not. When opponents sit on his right hand, Valanciunas has a decent counter that sees him spin baseline before releasing a soft jumper. It’s not a particularly diverse skillset, but it works. Altogether, Valanciunas ranked first in the NBA in points per post-up at 1.02 (minimum: 123 post-possessions per game, per RR forums guru DanH).

Valanciunas is also a decent rim protector, provided that he actually rotates in time to guard the rim. Opponents shot 46.5 percent at the rim with Jonas around, good for 10th in the NBA (minimum: 40 GP, 5 OppFGA). Valanciunas’s size is a strong deterrent in the paint and he’s hard to move in the post. Opponents scored an average of 0.73 points per post-up against Valanciunas, a mark on par with Andrew Bogut (0.73) and Marc Gasol (0.74). He does a good job of staying vertical, he hardly ever swipes for steals and he is a decent defensive rebounder.

But even the staunchest of Valanciunas’s defenders would agree that he has some glaring limitations. In order for Valanciunas to take the next step in his development, Valanciunas needs to improve upon the following.

1. Playmaking

Raptors fans have always decried the lack of touches for Valanciunas. And while there’s some merit to that notion, there is also a good reason why Valanciunas is so often neglected: he isn’t a playmaker.

Playmaking is more than just assists. It encompasses a whole number of evils. The ethos of playmaking is rooted in the ability to force defenses to contort and react in such a way that it opens up opportunities to score. This is one of Valanciunas’s most glaring weaknesses.

It becomes obvious with his assist totals. Valanciunas logged over 2000 minutes with a usage percentage of 19 percent, yet his assist percentage was miniscule, clocking in at 3.1 percent. To put that into historical context, only five players in the history of the NBA has posted a 3.1 or lower assist percentage given with more than 2000 minutes and 19 usage percentage.

This is most apparent when Valanciunas catches the ball in the high post. He’s completely lost and the Raptors’ offense sputters as he decides his next move. He’s not a threat to drive, nor is he a threat to shoot. Basically, he’s not able to make a play. So most often, Valanciunas holds for a few seconds before deciding between a reset back to a ball-handler, or a pump-fake followed by a slow post-up. It’s not pretty.

The closest Valanciunas comes to playmaking with any kind of consistency is when he posts up. But even that proves difficult. It can be time-consuming to work Valanciunas into a position to post-up and his teammates often neglect him, even when carves out decent position. Valanciunas can usually score in single coverage, but struggles to find the open man against double-teams.

It might just come down to a lack of intuition with Valanciunas. You can almost see the gears slowly turning in his head; he’s usually a step behind the play. He doesn’t have a natural gift to spot plays before they develop and he lacks the ball-handling or offensive versatility to make one happen. But without developing at least one of those requisite skills, Valanciunas’s role in the offense will continue to remain limited.

2. Lateral quickness

When Valanciunas first came into the league, he was seen as a springy 20-year-old with a high motor and great energy. Dwane Casey even set the floor for Valanciunas at Bulls center Joakim Noah.

“At the worst, we’re getting a Joakim Noah from Chicago — a guy who mans the middle, challenged a little bit in terms of scoring in the paint but as far as of pick-and-rolling to the basket, he has great hands to roll and finish.”

What Valanciunas has developed into, however, is very much the antithesis of Joakim Noah. Valanciunas can actually score around the basket, but he doesn’t have playmaking instincts and he certainly lacks Noah’s versatility on defense.

It circles back to quickness for Valanciunas. For a young center, Valanciunas moves at a glacial pace, especially inside the paint. He’s often caught in no man’s land between guarding the rim and pressuring the ball, making him an easy target to exploit in pick-and-roll coverage. Combined with Valanciunas’s slow decision-making and the Raptors’ inability to contain dribble penetration, Valanciunas and the Raptors were slaughtered by the NBA’s most basic play: the pick-and-roll.

Given that he lacks footspeed, changing defensive schemes should help alleviate some problems for Valanciunas. But he wasn’t asked to hedge as much as the Raptors’ other bigs and the Raptors’ guards still insisted on giving up the middle when paired defensively with Valanciunas. The strategy often led to awkward 2-on-1 situations in which Valanciunas had to guard both the ball handler and the roller.

However, hiding Valanciunas will become increasingly difficult. Dropping Valanciunas back to protect the rim works against a traditional big, but teams have often exploited Valanciunas’s weakness by going small, or even by catching Valanciunas on switches. Valanciunas doesn’t have the footspeed to track players on the perimeter and it prompts him to guess on shot-fakes to compensate.

The NBA is also moving away from the uniformity of ICEing pick-and-rolls because the it falls apart against teams with a wealth of 3-point shooting. In response, teams are increasingly warming to the idea of switching, with teams like Milwaukee, Houston and Golden State trotting out lineups of homogenous defenders who are capable of guarding multiple positions. The idea there is a trade-off: switching yields mismatches, but it spares the need for help rotations on pick-and-rolls.

To that end, it’s unreasonable to expect Valanciunas to ever be able to defend any position other than center. But given where the league is trending, Valanciunas will need to — at the minimum — develop enough quickness to adequately brave the perimeter on occasion.

3. Midrange Jumper

The goal with Valanciunas developing a midrange jumper isn’t so that the Raptors can have yet another starter who lives in the midrange. The idea is to develop a necessary weapon to play out of the high post.

Valanciunas attempted 86 of his 652 field-goal attempts from the midrange, knocking them down at a 33.7 percent clip. Owing mostly to his inability to can the shot, opponents completely played off him and dared Valanciunas to shoot. Valanciunas almost never went straight into a shot, opting instead to bait opponents with a toothless pump-fake.

Being able to can the flat-footed shot should theoretically open up a world of possibilities. It makes the pick-and-pop an option. It makes the idea of working Valanciunas out of the high post an option. It makes running dribble hand-offs in the middle of the court easier without a defender sagging off and waiting at the basket.

Valanciuas has good form and is a good free-throw shooter, so he has the working structure of a functional jumper. The next step will be for him to take it with more conviction.

***

We’re less than a month from the draft. Bear with us.

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