The game was billed as a battle of two of the East’s most promising centres: Toronto Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas and Orlando Magic’s Nik Vucevic.
And for good reason.
Vucevic, the 24-year-old who’s averaged at least 11 rebounds per game for three seasons and counting, put up 18 and 11 in the Magic’s upset win in Atlanta over the weekend.
Meanwhile Valanciunas – despite riding the pine in OT on Sunday in New York – was coming off of a career-best four straight games with at least 12 rebounds heading into Monday night.
“It should be a good matchup,” Vucevic said earlier in the day. “I know his game pretty well and he’s improved a lot. I’ve been playing against him for awhile, including in Europe, and it’s always fun going against him. He’s a good player, a good challenge.”
And it was, at first, as the two went head-to-head in the low post. But it was the Raptors reserves - namely Tyler Hansbrough and Patrick Patterson - who carried the load down the stretch. The Raptors starting centre watched as his team turned an eight point halftime deficit into a convincing 95-82 win.
Valanciunas struggled in his first two games against Vucevic and the Magic, averaging just seven points on an uncharacteristic 23 percent shooting. On Monday Valanciunas had seven points and six rebounds after half-time, but managed just one rebound in six third-quarter minutes. He played 23 minutes total, and never saw the floor in the fourth quarter of the Raptors 95-82 win.
Amid the Raptors success, Jonas Valanciunas’ minutes continue to be fairly erratic this season as head coach Dwane Casey places more and more weight on his bench (Hansbrough and Patterson both played all 12 minutes of the final frame).
Winning, of course, is the whole point of the game.
But it's hard to ignore that since Valanciunas and Vucevic both came into the league in 2011 - and again on Monday - that matchup never reached its potential.
Just a few short years ago, Valanciunas was the prized prospect of the two, chosen fifth overall - 11 spots higher than Vucevic - in the 2011 draft. It made sense - Vucevic, despite his 7-foot frame, hadn’t exactly turned the NCAA on its head in his three years at USC. Valanciunas, on the other hand, was dominating the global youth stage and turning Lithuania basketball into a rising power. He was a winner with massive upside; Vucevic was a project. But they both represented the same thing: potential pillars at a once-great position suddenly thinning on overall talent.
Today, Vucevic is both the more polished and promising player, a future all-star at the position even - and averaging 33 minutes per game over the past three seasons has certainly helped. In contrast, Valanciunas, who's shown plenty of flashes, continues to find a consistent role while starting for the East’s best team.
Despite the changing minutes and lack of crunch time action, Vucevic still sees Valanciunas as a player to measure himself against.
“He’s going to become a very good one,” Vucevic says, “and he’s still very young, how old is he, 22? So for a big man especially that’s very young. You have to really concentrate on trying to keep him off the boards, especially on our end because he’s a very good offensive rebounder. His post-game is always improving, too, so it forces you to focus on him more and more.”
Like former NBA coach George Karl brought up in this interview with Sportsnet, the big man’s usage in today’s game is in steady decline.
It's why the respective big men are obviously both huge assets for their clubs, even if they are asked to play decidedly different roles - Vucevic is an absolute focal point of a rebuilding team that’s pegged him a cornerstone. Who’s to say how Valanciunas would fare in that scenario, but with the Raptors focused on winning right now, his job is to fit into a functioning machine. Sometimes it means posting 18/12 in 30-plus minutes, like last week against Denver. Other times it’s providing 20 minutes and energy from tip-off.
But the lack of consistent minutes for Valanciunas isn’t a concern for the Raptors. “With this team that we have it can be anybody’s night,” Patterson told the media after the game, “We all contribute together.” The team has been riding their depth to first place in the East all season long - and will only continue to do so as each night’s matchup dictates.
Maybe Valanciunas will never become the player Vucevic will. Maybe he’ll never get the same opportunities. Maybe he’s just not as good. And maybe, if you’re the first-place Toronto Raptors right now, you couldn't care less.