Six seasons into Jonas Valanciunas’ NBA career and it is still unclear how good the Lithuanian big man can be. We know Valanciunas can efficiently get buckets in a myriad of ways from the post, the mid-range, and the line, averaging 12.7 points on 56.8 percent shooting last season (including 80.6 percent from the line). We know Valanciunas can rebound, averaging 8.6 rebounds last season. However, at the age of 26 with six full-but-restricted seasons under his belt, there are still big questions surrounding Valanciunas’ game: Can he shoot the three at a respectable volume, thereby spacing the floor for his teammates? Can he become a better passer, potentially serving as a facilitator in the pick and roll rather than just a screen setter? And, perhaps most importantly, can he stay on the floor and defend when opposing lineups go small and play fast? New head coach Nick Nurse will have his work cut out for him this season, putting these uncertainties surrounding Valanciunas’ game to the test. After all, considering the lack of big man depth on the Raptors roster, maximizing JV’s potential could be paramount to achieving team success in 2018-19.
Two important things happened in the offseason that will indirectly affect JV this season and going forward. First of all, Nick Nurse — who has worked closely with Valanciunas for years as an assistant and seems to be a bigger fan of JV than his predecessor Dwane Casey was— was promoted to head coach and brought a new staff with him. Second, backup center Jakob Poeltl was traded to San Antonio as part of the Kawhi Leonard blockbuster, freeing up the 18.6 center minutes he averaged last season. Considering JV averaged a career-low 22.4 minutes last season, that number could see a big spike if Valanciunas beats out Serge Ibaka and Greg Monroe for Poeltl’s minutes; considering Ibaka looked 45-years-old last season and Monroe is certifiably washed up, Valanciunas has a great opportunity to do just that.
So what can JV do to earn those minutes? For starters he can continue improving his three point shot. Nurse will encourage every Raptor to shoot threes next season — and already has with JV, helping him put up 100 three pointers after every practice last season — and JV will have an opportunity to improve on last season’s three point volume (1.0 per game or 30 for 74) while attempting to remain nearly as efficient (40.5 percent). Becoming a long range threat could not only open up driving lanes for JV, but having five guys on the floor who can shoot the three would open up the floor for Lowry and Kawhi in a way they’ve only dreamed of.
In addition to shooting more threes, Valanciunas needs to improve as a facilitator, both from the post and from the top of the key. Last season, JV averaged just 1.1 assists and a measly 7.5 assist percentage despite being surrounded by shooters most of the time. With a higher emphasis on ball movement and even better shooters surrounding him this season, JV will have ample opportunities to find teammates in good situations. If he can do that reliably, Nurse will be able to get creative in his offensive schemes, potentially allowing JV to not only screen and roll in the pick and roll but to also whip unexpected passes around the floor; something big men are getting more and more comfortable doing. If JV can improve those two areas of his offense, he should see his usage percentage increase from 22.7 last season (the only time he posted a top-three usage rate in his career) while also having more plays run through him like this one:
Defense, however, remains Valanciunas’ biggest liability. As with most seven-footers weighing over 265 pounds, JV holds up fine in the post but is often slow to get around screens and close out on shooters, making it hard for him to defend elite bigs who space the floor like Al Horford or Kevin Love. Fortunately for Valanciunas, Nurse is well aware of his center’s defensive liabilities and is already thinking of ways to plan around them.
“The biggest key for me is that you’ve got to put these guys in positions where they can be successful. And I think we’ve learned a lot more about Jonas and what he can do and not try to expect him to do things he can’t,” Nurse said. “I’ve got some defensive schemes in my mind along the lines of that. Trying to figure out how I can get these guys in the right positions and keep ‘em there – zone ideas, but with man-to-man principles, switching and things like that.”
Alleviating defensive pressure off Valanciunas is important, but can only go so far. It’s important that JV improves his speed, footwork, and defensive awareness in order to gain the trust of his new head coach and close out games against small and fast opponents. If he can hold up defensively against smaller and faster bigs like Horford, he should be able to use his size to dominate the post offensively while feasting on rebounds. At his best JV looks something like this:
Despite all the flack he’s gotten throughout his Raptors career, Valanciunas is good. He might never be an All-Star, but every team needs a tough center who can play big minutes, eat up rebounds, protect the rim, and score efficiently. JV does all that and has the potential to do so much more. Maybe this season with a more trusting head coach, an emphasis on ball movement, and a less defined hierarchy he makes that leap.