It’s time for the Raptors to unleash Valanciunas

Jonas Valanciunas is averaging 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in 26.3 minutes this season. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

It’s the seven-foot dramblys in the room and its first language is Lithuanian. Dwane Casey doesn’t avoid questions about Jonas Valanciunas’s use as much as he feints and weaves his way around them.

And while it is a fool’s game to go against a coach’s gut instinct – former Montreal Expos manager Buck Rodgers told me one time that when he screwed up a decision he’d tell reporters it was “a gut call” because it’s difficult to tell a coach or manager that his gut instinct wasn’t good – nights such as Monday when Valanciunas’s reward for being the only starter to show up is a seat on the pine in the fourth quarter at least require noting.

It’s easy to understand the decision of Casey, the Raptors head coach, to go largely with his second unit down the stretch of an 82-75 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks because it was that unit that shut down the Bucks – they missed 15 consecutive shots at one point – but at the same time there have been games in his tenure when he essentially uses the final minutes as a reward for players who have shouldered the heavy lifting.

Monday would seem to have been just such an occasion to run out Valanciunas, who in 25 minutes and 19 seconds went 6-for-9 from the field and had 13 boards with just two personal fouls. Valanciunas worked hard at both ends and was making hay in the paint against the Bucks’ big men. Even in his limited playing time (Valanciunas didn’t see the court again after Terrence Ross came in for him with just under five minutes remaining in the third quarter and the Raptors staring at a 63-49 deficit) he still finished with his team-high 16th double-double of the season.

This much must be said: it is a sign of how far this franchise and the player have come that the use of Valanciunas is a talking point not in terms of his development but in terms of whether he’d give the team a better chance of winning on a particular night. More to the point is the suggestion that the Raptors ability to go on a bit of a post-season run is dependant in no small measure on the big man’s ability to hold up in the hurly-burly of the paint – specifically, to develop that extra bit of body awareness and footwork and decision-making under pressure that might make a difference down the stretch in a close game.

We know of course that Casey’s rotation, like that of any coach, consists of a variety of interconnected decisions. James Johnson’s unavailability due to a right hamstring injury impacted the coach’s options; so, perhaps, did that nagging finger injury to Kyle Lowry, who is playing with two fingers taped together. Casey was already using Greivis Vasquez in a two-guard set in part to give Lowry a little extra time off the ball after a month of carrying the team in DeMar DeRozan’s absence — no doubt the injury is also factoring in. It’s best to remember when criticizing any coach that he has more detailed knowledge of the health and even the mental well-being of his players than any critic in the media.

Still, it seems apparent that barring something unknown to the public at large, it’s time to let the shackles off Valanciunas. It is true that the NBA has become less of a big man’s game, that it is the hybrid “big man” (think LeBron James) that is the calling card of successful NBA teams as much as it is the plundering, space-eating centre. But it is time for Casey to see if Valanciunas can force other teams to adapt to the Raptors, as opposed to what now seems to be a willingness to let the Raptors opponents determine who is on the court – or at least try to strike some kind of balance.

Colleague Dave Zarum interviewed splendid big man Pau Gasol on Nov. 14 and the five-time all-star had some advice for Valanciunas, chiefly: “Continue to work, and develop your NBA game during practices. Make sure your teammates and coaches see what you’re capable of doing and, eventually, it will translate to the games. Your teammates will be more comfortable with you, they will find comfort in knowing what you will do with the ball once you get it; that you will be successful with it and make something positive happen for your team.”

Valanciunas would seem to be doing all the necessary things to start. It might be time for his coach to let him finish, too. Wednesday night against the Brooklyn Nets would seem a perfect opportunity.