JV making leaps despite inconsistent minutes

Jonas Valanciunas continues to rise to the occasion against the league's top big men.(Photo: Frank Gunn/CP)

His coach praised him after a career night on Monday at the Air Canada Centre, but forgive Jonas Valanciunas if he didn’t exactly feel like celebrating.

“I feel pretty bad,” the third-year centre told reporters after posting a career-best 31 points along with 12 rebounds against the Detroit Pistons, “because we lost.”

It was Toronto’s fifth loss in their last six games, and the crushing result overshadowed yet another strong outing from Valanciunas, who might be playing the best stretch of offensive basketball we’ve seen from the seven-footer.

Against Detroit’s front court of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, Valanciunas owned the post, going 14-for-15 from the floor (3-for-4 from the line).

His value as an offensive player continues to grow—his usage rate and field-goal attempts are up from last season (he's put up double-digit FGAs in six of his last nine games) and steadily climbing in recent weeks as the Raptors begin to emphasize Valanciunas as a major part of the offence when he’s on the floor.

“He has such a good touch around the basket,” says Terrence Ross, Valanciunas’s teammate since they were both rookies in the 2012-13 season, “that any time he gets established around five to 10 feet from the basket, we know to look for him as a go-to guy.”

And with Valanciunas shooting a scorching 66 percent so far in 2015, Ross and the Raptors are learning when to ride the hot hand, particularly early in games when you’ll see Toronto run their offence through the big man.

“That’s what we do," says Ross. "We dump it off to him, see how he’s feeling. Usually if he gets his first four points, we kinda know from there.”

Nine games ago, on the road against Chicago, Valanciunas posted a loud 20 and nine against the East’s best front court: Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. Since then he’s averaging nearly 17 points and eight rebounds, on 58 percent shooting and 79 percent from the line.

And his teammates are noticing his recent offensive surge, though they're hardly surprised by it.

“He’s playing at a higher level,” says Ross. “But he’s doing things that, when we were rookies, everybody said he would be doing: rebounding, scoring, getting double-doubles. I think he’s coming into his own and establishing himself.”

Valanciunas's game has unquestionably grown this season, even if it hasn’t altogether translated to court time. He's actually seeing the floor a little less this season compared to 2013-14 (26.7 mpg to 28.2), but it's the inconsistency of his minutes that continues to stand out most.

He played 36 minutes against the Pistons (including all but 30 seconds of the fourth quarter) and if he cracks the 30-minute mark against the 76ers Wednesday night, it’ll be just the fourth time this season that’s happened in consecutive games.

That roller coaster can be frustrating, but head coach Dwane Casey has his reasons. Valid ones, too.

For starters, Casey has shown a commitment to utilizing the depth of roster, particularly in the front court where the Raps' versatile bigs allow the coach to play the matchup game.

And so, against one of the NBA’s biggest front courts in Detroit, the equally imposing Valanciunas sees plenty of floor time. While four games earlier, against the Golden State Warrior’s signature small-ball lineup, he played just 11 minutes.

Ross, who can relate (he played 24 minutes on Monday but sat out the entire fourth), says that’s become par for the course for the Raptors. “Whoever has the best matchups in a particular game will usually play the most. That’s how it is with our team,” says Ross, adding that Valanciunas’s recent success may start to force his coach's hand.
“As of late, Jonas is playing so well that it almost doesn’t matter the matchup. He’s just going at people and starting to prove he can go against everybody in this league.”

Yet while his offensive game flourishes, it’s actually JV's defence that has made the biggest difference for the Raptors. It’s the other main reason Valanciunas has seen erratic minutes and watched important stretches of crunch time from the bench this season. While defence has been on ongoing issue for the team as a whole, a glance at a number of statistics—traditional and advanced—show that the Raptors' D has been worse with their big man on the floor.

When looking at the splits in Raptor wins vs. losses, the only stat category that is significantly different for Valanciunas is defensive rating, basically an adjusted measure of the number of points a player's team gives up while they're on the floor. In wins, Valanciunas's defensive rating is 102. In losses, it's 122.

His interior defensive stats aren't exactly stellar, either. At 0.8 blocks per game, he's not protecting the rim like the team had hoped, especially given that he averages more than a block per in Raptor wins.

So there is still work to be done for Valanciunas, and his minutes will likely stay somewhat choppy until he makes enough strides on both ends of the floor. But as he continues to make significant strides, those who see him on a daily basis are recognizing the growth.

“He’s still a fun guy to be around,” says Ross, his closest friend on the team, “but on the court, he’s a lot more focused. When we first met at the Rookie Transition Program in the summer of 2012, he was just quiet, looked like he was trying to figure everything out. Now it looks like he has it figured out.”