For the first time in his four-year career, it looks like the Raptors are genuinely starting to trust and rely on Jonas Valanciunas. Considering that he was the 5th pick in the draft, one of the most efficient offensive players in the league last season and just signed a $64 million dollar extension, you could say that it’s about damn time. Regardless of schematic or trust issues in the past that held back or hurt Valanciunas, the Raptors and Jonas himself have demonstrated several changes in the way that he’s being used this year that have made a huge positive difference.
Jonas has been quietly very good offensively for a while now. He’s not an elbow facilitator like Marc Gasol or a devastating pick and roll punisher like DeAndre Jordan, but rather a more traditional post-up big. Valanciunas shot over 50% on post-ups last season and almost 80% from the free throw line. Those two numbers are fantastic, and Valanciunas utilized them to increase his field goal percentage and his points per game last season despite playing less minutes and getting less touches than the season before in an offense that wanted to clear driving lanes for perimeter players and a defense that sold out on traps and gambles on turnovers that couldn’t protect him. Valanciunas’ numbers made it clear that he was a serious threat in the post, but he was rarely ever turned to in important minutes, often sitting out the crunch-time minutes of key games. Jonas signing a long-term, big money extension and the Raptors front office deciding that Dwayne Casey needed to employ an entirely different coaching staff during the offseason seemed to imply that both sides acknowledged changes needed to be made.
For his part, Jonas has made some subtle but important improvements. He’s employed a painfully obvious pump-fake for years now that anyone in the league should be ashamed of themselves for jumping at. It had become less of a pump-fake and more of a timid back away from a jump-shot opportunity where Jonas just kind of hoped that opposing defenders would either inexplicably foul him on or get completely out of his way like Moses parting the Red Sea simply out of kind deference to the move itself. Instead, defenders generally just stood still in front of him as the defense across the floor recovered to take away opportunities. Jonas is a good shooter who should simply be putting up jumpers if he’s open because he can a) hit them, and b) doing so consistently is the only way he’ll ever open the lane to pump and drive around them. This year Jonas has been approaching those jump-shot opportunities with much more confidence and immediacy, taking his shot when it’s open and hitting it more often than not. The offense has been flowing so far this season in Toronto in a way that it really didn’t last year, and while he still has a way to go, Jonas has been better in not being a cog that slows things down with indecision when he see’s the ball. Jonas even found the open man in the weak side corner for a kick-out pass out of a double team in Sunday night’s game! That seems like something basic, but it’s something that he was laughably bad at even a season ago and was a point of emphasis for his improvement. Jonas is starting to demand double-teams in the post, and if he can effectively pass out of those, it opens the door for him to become a major focal point of a very good offense.
Passing out of double-teams and seeing cutters is something that Jonas still has a long way to go on, but there is another improvement he’s made to his offensive game that’s been notable so far. Strength and the positioning it buys you. It takes years to build the physical strength required to battle your way into enviable post position. Two many of Jonas’ post-ups the last few seasons started with him being moved 12 or 13 feet away from the basket by his defender before he could receive an entry pass. Many of Jonas’ past turnovers came from him trying to back his way all the way back to the basket in these scenarios, opening himself up to steals and sudden help defense. So far this year Jonas has taken 73% of his shots 8 feet or closer to the basket. Another year of continued physical development seems to be paying off, as Jonas is starting to become the bully in the post, establishing deeper and earlier position in the post, giving himself a much better opportunity for good looks that take less time to develop and offer less of a risk to turnover. It’s subtle but important development.
Finally, on offence, Valanciunas seems to have had one of Amir Johnson’s craft pick and roll moves imparted upon him. Raptors ball handling wings like DeRozan and Lowry are both notiorious non-passers in pick and roll drives, especially DeRozan. The League’s recognition of this trend badly hurt DeRozan’s efficiency as a pick and roll finisher a season ago when Amir and Valanciunas were rarely used as roll men despite their efficient numbers when given the chance. What Amir used to do on some DeRozan middle pick and roll drives was, after sealing DeRozan’s man and turning to the basket, delaying his roll and staying a full step behind DeRozan instead of charging through for a potential pass for a finish. He knew that DeRozan probably wouldn’t pass, so what he would instead do was put himself in an ideal position to follow DeRozan’s shot that would draw the attention of the help defender, putting himself in place for a potentially easy and immediate put-back. It’s not necessarily the best team use of a pick and roll opportunity, but it was a smart way to adapt to how your teammates play and how they’re guarded. Jonas employed this exact strategy on a pick and roll with DeRozan in the 2nd quarter of last night’s Thunder game for an easy bucket.
Jonas improvement and slightly increased involvement in the offence is welcome, but not that surprising for someone who has demonstrated deft touch and yearly improvement for years now. What is surprising though has been his sudden improvement on defense. Despite his size, Valanciunas has been a considerable negative on defense in on/off splits every season of his career. It’s one of the things that made it hard to keep him on the court in tight games, a problem that drove some of us crazy when it was clear that the defense suffered greatly from a lack of a big man in his absence. Even with size a considerable defensive need, they were better off defensively without him. The Raptors have made some key changes in the way they play defense this season that has so far paid enormous dividends in that department. Jonas is no longer chasing pick and rolls all the way to the perimeter or making a series of traps and frantic switches. Instead, the Raptors are ‘icing’ or ‘blueing’ in pick and roll defense, forcing everything towards the sideline and the baseline, and leaving the big man a step or two behind to pick up any penetration and be in position to challenge the shots at the rim. This has paid off huge. Big men like Al Horford, LaMarcus Aldridge and the artist formerly known as Dirk Nowitzki can punish you for this style of defense when they’re left wide open for pick and pops. But the reality is, there just aren’t a lot of those players at the 5 spot in the Eastern conference. So instead of getting torched from outside so far, the Raptors have been hugely improved guarding pick and rolls with Jonas not getting caught way out of position or lost trying to follow actions and adjustments. Jonas doesn’t have to be Roy Hibbert of old at as a rim protector to be a positive on defense. In fact, a huge part of Roy Hibbert’s effectiveness simply comes from being an enormous man standing in the way of driving lanes to the basket. Valanciunas can do that too, and he’s been put in a far better position of the team’s scheme to do that this season. The other major benefit of that is when Jonas is left closer to the basket, he’s more often in a better position for defensive rebounds, something that was a huge team liability and contributor to their lousy defense a season ago. Through 5 games so far, Jonas has been gobbling up defensive rebounds at a much greater rate, matching a team-wide improvement that’s seen them go from the bottom of the league rankings to right near the top. This was phase one of Golden State building their now league best defense from the ground up a few years ago under Marc Jackson, when they made a big step forward largely through a major emphasis on defensive rebounding and putting their players in a better position to get them. According to nba.com’s player movement tracking stats, Jonas has been in position to get a defensive rebound 3 times than he was a season ago, and it’s resulted in his per game defensive rebounding numbers to rise from 6 to 7.8 despite only playing about 2 more minutes a game. Those minutes are finally coming in the 4th quarter and crunch time too, where Jonas is battling against tougher competition for each rebound. His challenge of Russell Westbrook’s final minute drive to the hoop and the defensive rebound he grabbed out of it helped the Raptors win in OKC last night and are a perfect example of both of these trends in action.
Jonas has gotten stronger, a little smarter and a little more confident and self-assured in his offensive game. The result has been more touches and better quality looks. As his comfort continues to grow, hopefully we see him more willing and able to grow as a passer out of the post. But he’s already established himself as a clear and reliable scoring threat regardless. And the team’s adjustments on defense have put Jonas in a position to succeed, grabbing more rebounds and making shots for opponents much more difficult through being in position to be an enormous obstacle between them and the hoop. For the first time in his career, Jonas is a net positive in on/off stats and a positive on both ends of the court, to the tune of the Raptors being +23.8 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the court. Surely those numbers will come back to Earth a bit, but the results look very promising.