The Raptors are down at Summer League in Las Vegas, which is where center Jonas Valanciunas caught up with Akil Augustine of NBA TV Canada.
“I was working on my shots selection, I was working on my quickness, bringing my game to being like power forward, not like slow center,” Valanciunas said of his summer workouts. “So I’m trying to increase my speed and my abilities to shoot a midrange shot … to be like a quicker guy.”
Valanciunas then clarified that he’s not being instructed to become a power forward (which would make no sense considering that he’s their only viable starting center), and that the goal was to add quickness, to add a midrange jumper, to his current repertoire of post-oriented play.
It’s a great sign that Valanciunas is working on quickness and his shooting. I touched on the need for both in a piece earlier this summer.
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.
On a midrange shot:
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 launched 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. And again. And again. And again.
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.
As an added note, you can actually see Valanciunas working on his jumper in the background during Bruno Caboclo’s interview.