Injuries

Jonas Valanciunas cleared for practice

Injured Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas has been cleared for a return to practice, the team announced Monday.

Valanciunas has been sidelined since fracturing the fourth metacarpal in his left hand on Nov. 20, against the Los Angeles Lakers, when that dastardly Kobe Bryant had the gall to try to play defense for the first time this season. Valanciunas opted for rehab over surgery and was originally expected to miss six weeks, which could have covered 20 or 21 games. He was cleared for return after seeing a specialist for a follow-up Monday morning.

It’s unclear if this means Valanciunas is close to a return to game action, but it stands to reason that he is. Because the injury is to his hand, Valanciunas has been able to continue to workout and maintain his cardio. As of Sunday, he was still wearing a brace on his non-shooting hand when doing pre-game work, and he could continue to play with the brace if necessary. If he plays Tuesday when the Raptors take on the Dallas Mavericks, he’ll have missed just 15 games and less than five weeks. To be clear, Valanciunas may need more than one day of practice to get back to a point where the team is comfortable playing him in a game, so it may be best to set your expectations for a post-Christmas return.

For additional context, here are some tweets from the excellent beat reporting crew from today’s practice:

Valanciunas also said he thinks the time off will help him, as it allowed him to watch Bismack Biyombo and think about the game more, per Josh Lewenberg of TSN.

That’s great, and it’s worth mentioning here that Biyombo has been a godsend filling in for Valanciunas. He has serious limitations at the offensive end and becomes unplayable against some defenses (like Sunday), but he’s averaged 6.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks in 15 starts, shooting 50 percent from the floor. The team’s been better in that stretch with Biyombo on the bench – by 6.4 points per-100 possessions (PPC) – owing to some nice minutes from Lucas Nogueira and some fun center-less lineups, but the Raptors would have been lost without his rebounding and rim protection. So shout out to Biyombo – who ranks ninth in the NBA in rebounding percentage since Nov. 21, grabbing 20.9 percent of possible boards when on the floor – despite the on/off-court numbers and the immense struggles of pretty much every starting lineup iteration the team has tried.

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The Raptors have unquestionably missed Valanciunas. Prior to the injury, the Lithuanian big man was playing perhaps the best two-way ball of his career. While there remain some vision issues out of the post, he remained an effective scorer on the block and an absolute terror as a dive-man. He had improved his screen-setting, too, helping create additional seams and options for Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph. The numbers get muddled some by the co-incidence of DeMarre Carroll’s absence, but the Raptors have been 9.8 PPC worse without Valanciunas this season, suffering on both ends of the floor and especially on the offensive glass.

In 14 games, Valanciunas was averaging career-highs of 12.7 points and 9.3 rebounds while shooting 55.6 percent from the floor. More importantly to the team’s long-term prospects, he showed a great deal of comfort in the new defensive system. Valanciunas was overexposed some last season being asked to hedge hard against the pick-and-roll, and this year’s more conservative system, one that plays to his strengths better, appears to be a good fit. The team’s starting five wasn’t playing particularly well before getting hit with injuries, but the next eight most common Valanciunas lineups had all outscored opponents, including the team’s dangerous closing group with Joseph inserted for Luis Scola (+27.2 PPC in 35 minutes).

Hopefully, Valanciunas is able to quickly rediscover the groove he was in. Following that, if Carroll can get back to health and the starters can begin to gain some chemistry (or have Patrick Patterson inserted for Scola), then we’re really talking. There’s been no update on when Carroll may return, though he was set for a follow-up meeting with doctors some time early this week, too.

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