There seems to be a number for everything in sports these days. Arguments are constantly being punctuated by stats, stats and more stats. But there is an old adage that says numbers don’t bleed. Numbers can never truly measure how hard someone is willing to work and that’s why some qualitative, old-time measures like the ‘eye test’, can still help prove things that numbers can’t define.
For Toronto Raptor fans, such is the case with rookie centre Jonas Valaciunas. The usual numbers, like points, rebounds, blocked shots, and field goal percentage will be there for people to look at during his rookie season. Some will look at how he compares to other post players and even use the ever-popular per 36 minutes stat as a benchmark. But unless you are watching the game you won’t see the other things that Valanciunas does on the floor. Skeptics will say it’s a way to lower the expectations if his numbers don’t stack up in comparison to other players, but in truth it’s a matter of actually watching the game to see what he does for the team.
There is no stat for a big man rolling hard to the basket on a high screen-and-roll play that originates just above the top of the key. But when it creates driving lanes for the ball handler coming off the screen or collapses the defence to give a shooter just a bit more time to pull the trigger, you know it has paid dividends. There are great shooters that have been paid handsomely after playing with the likes of Dwight Howard or Shaquille O’Neal for the reason just mentioned.
Once the Raptors point guards get used to the sight of the big man rolling down the middle of the lane with his hands in the air, there will be highlight reel alley-oop passes and dunks delivered. After missing part of training camp, the chemistry will take some time to develop. Just look at Jose Calderon and Amir Johnson over the last few seasons.
What is it worth to a team like Toronto to have Valanciunas in the lane not only blocking shots but contesting and altering them as well? For a defensively-oriented squad, a challenged shot attempt is like adding fuel to a fire. When Valanciunas becomes more adept at defending a big player in the post with a bent arm and forearm on their back when they are trying to back him in, there will be fewer double teams and rotations needed for Toronto’s defence. Ball handlers will be forced retreat even momentarily, as Valanciunas shows himself as a deterrent for screen-roll situations, which will also help the Raptors defence.
Head coach Dwane Casey has noted that Valanciunas is active as the defensive anchor patrolling the paint and he is communicating also. Casey joked that Valanciunas’ accent makes it difficult to understand him at times but eventually his teammates will be accustomed to his voice. Again, communication is something that is valuable but difficult to quantify.
There is no stat to measure running the floor but Valanciunas has been well coached in this aspect of the game and it will get him and his teammates easy baskets as the season progresses. There is nothing worse than a point guard defending a fast break with a hard charging big man outrunning his counterparts on your squad. You have to defend him until you get help and then try to stop the ball at a reasonable distance from the hoop.
You regularly hear coaches and front office people use the term ‘high motor’. Back in the old days it meant something plain and simple: playing hard. It used to be a given, but in this new era of entitlement where players are sometimes given court time without earning it, playing hard has become a skill. Somewhere old-timers like Charles Oakley, Dave Cowens and Moses Malone are shaking their heads. There will be no head shaking in Toronto with Valanciunas as he plays with effort and enthusiasm on a consistent basis.
No, there are no numbers to measure the aforementioned items that Valnaciunas will supply in great quantities this season. But perhaps the best reward for the big Lithuanian will come with smiles from teammates, as well as hand clapping, fist pumping, continued encouragment and positive verbal reinforcement from coaches that accompany team success.
To get a true measure of what Valanciunas will bring to the team this season fans will have to watch the games and not simply watch the numbers.