Kawhi Leonard is having one of the truly great seasons in Raptors history, and saying that still feels like an understatement. In many ways you can say he is having the best single season ever for the Raptors. If the season were to end today he would have the 7th highest single season usage rate the franchise has ever seen, while finishing 3rd in points per game (26.1), 6th in steals per game (1.8), having the 9th lowest turnover percentage, the 8th best Box Plus/Minus, and the highest Player Efficiency Rating (all according to Basketball Reference). That’s a heck of a record and a reminder that Kawhi is the best player to have ever worn a Raptors jersey.
On top of the previously stated accomplishments Kawhi would also have the second best Win Shares per 48 Minutes Toronto has ever seen at .226. Likely the greatest player to ever wear a Raptors jersey is putting himself in position to have one of the truly elite seasons in the team’s history. It feels fitting.
But if Kawhi is only number 2 in WS/48, who could possibly be tops on the list? Let me introduce you to 2018-19, Jonas Valanciunas.
We can’t possibly know what happened behind closed doors when Nick Nurse told Jonas about the situational starting role that he envisioned for the Raptors’ previously entrenched starter, but at least in public we’ve seen no indication of any frustration.
Prior to this season Jonas had only come off the bench in 6 of his 440 games in the NBA. He had been almost as much of a staple as DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry since arriving in Toronto, and through 26 games he has already been on the bench for 15 of them. Many have called for such a decision over the years, with both positive and negative reasons behind the argument, but while the bench has not been able to find the same stride from last season Jonas has largely been a dominant force.
One need look no further than his performance against Joel Embiid on Wednesday night, where he put up 26 points on 9-of-13 shooting, 8-of-9 from the line, 8 rebounds, and 2 assists in just 18 minutes of action, to see what he can do when he gets it going. If you weren’t able to watch the game (or even if you were), the highlight real is worth checking out:
Not only is Jonas coming off of the bench, he is also averaging the fewest minutes of his career (19.2 per game). Despite the low minute count he is scoring a career high 12.8 points per game (tied with 2015-16 where he played 26 minutes per game) and is shooting a career best 57.7 percent.
Most bench scorers across the NBA follow the typical mode of being a guard/wing, capable of getting hot from deep or able to get to the basket seemingly at will. Jonas is something different and has provided the Raptors a release valve of sorts. With continuing to set great picks, being a threat on the role, able to capably hit a mid-range jumper or the occasional three, and with the size to bang in the post, Jonas has been one of the league’s most efficient scorers this year.
Even across the league no one is averaging more points than Jonas is less than 24 minutes of action, making him one of the best low-minute scorers the league has this season.
Unfortunately the bench has yet to find much of a rhythm despite Jonas’ being a force in this capacity. Overall roughly 160 of Jonas’ 499 minutes on the season have been played without the presence of both Lowry and Kawhi. This isn’t surprising as both are high minute players, but it is telling. Much of Jonas’ success has still been connected to his partnership with Lowry as the partnership with Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet still appear to be works in progress.
With all that said, there are good reasons why Jonas is primarily coming off the bench instead of starting. Simply due to size and agility he struggles defending any action on the perimeter, although he has improved in this area over the years. These struggles have been well documented and highly criticized (arguably too much) over the years, but I’m not wanting this to be an indictment of what Jonas fails to be. Despite his limitations he has found ways to contribute and deserves praise for his willingness to alter his role this year. He is one of the league’s most efficient scorers (at least in low minutes) and one of its best rebounders for a team in desperate need of that skill.
It’s fair to recognize a player’s faults and to hope for improvement in those areas, but it’s important to also recognize their successes. Jonas is having the best season of his career and it should be celebrated.