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Jonas Valanciunas: Finding a Rhythm

It’s no secret that Jonas Valanciunas doesn’t always fit into the Toronto Raptors offense very well. It’s also no secret that the center is a lumbering type of big who doesn’t have the quickest hands defensively and isn’t much of a leaper. But over the past four games, Valanciunas has played a dominant brand of basketball that we see from him time to time, in flashes.

True, the Raptors’ last four opponents haven’t been the most fearsome competitors in the league (Clippers, Suns, Nets, and Kings), but anything that can help a player get on a roll is good news. Besides, the best big on that list of teams is DeAndre Jordan, a defensive monster at the rim, and Valanciunas had his number the entire time the two faced off (one of the few bright spots in that ugly game). These are that matchups that JV is supposed to be winning, and he’s doing just that.

Over the last four games, the Lithuanian is averaging 17.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game on a true shooting percentage of 66.4. His usage percentage is 22.3, which is almost exactly the same as his season average (21.4), and yet his net rating has skyrocketed from his season average of 7.8 to 23.5. He has been a massive part of the sudden improvement of the starting lineup, which has swapped places with the bench to become the statistically better lineup (this is, of course, due to a number of things, including rookies sagging off a bit, injuries, etc.).

Oh, and he can even shoot threes now!

How is he suddenly posting these numbers, you ask? Good question.

The quick answer is that Valanciunas is moving to the right spots at the right times. Despite that fact that he isn’t an extremely mobile big, he’s sneakily good at continuing to move off-ball within a confined space in order to get himself free. Basically, JV limits himself to the middle of the key area and floats around there, trying to break free from his man just by moving to and fro until something causes his man to leave him, whether it be forgetfulness or something like wing penetration.

He’s been doing this exceptionally well lately, and his field goal attempts prove it. For the season, he’s jacking up 7.7 shots per game, but over this four-game span, he’s taking 10.8 shots. It also doesn’t hurt that his teammates are noticing his rising production and are therefore looking for him more, feeding the beast so long as he delivers results.

Once open, JV then has a few options of what he can do next.

If his man leaves him completely due to wing penetration, as aforementioned, JV can slice right to the rim for either a put-back or an easy two off the catch. Here he makes a fantastic cut right down the middle and slams home a terrific pass from OG Anunoby with everyone else standing still.

If he’s close enough when he catches the ball, he only has to take one dribble before he can make his move toward the rim, where he’s a great finisher—he makes 68.8 per cent of his shots from within three feet of the hoop. Once he’s in deep enough, he becomes a real handful to stop.

He also has the option to stay off of his shed man and then use the space to take a midrange jumper. When Valanciunas doesn’t hesitate (or make a ridiculous amount of pump-fakes), he’s money in the midrange, and that’s been the case over these last four games in which he’s shooting 62.5 per cent on catch-and-shoot jumpers.

Perhaps the most underrated part of Valanciunas’ game is his passing. When he is put in a position to initiate the offense at the top of the key and off-ball action is able to free up a cutter, JV is almost always able to find them. Unfortunately, it’s not something we get to see all that often. But when we do, it’s gorgeous.

As the old adage goes, if you get your big touches, his focus and intensity will remain at a high level. Valanciunas has been solid in the pick and roll all season (64th percentile as the roll man), but now he is showing what he can do when the ball comes to him, and that he can move enough off-ball to receive the rock in the first place. It’s been great fun getting to see JV go off like this, especially in the last game against Sacramento in which Serge Ibaka sat out with *knee soreness, and C.J. Miles took his place, leaving Valanciunas as the only big on the floor.

It’s a small sample size, sure, but it just may be the flint that sparks the fire for an even longer run. For now, at least, Valanciunas is dominating.

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