In a losing season in which the playoffs will not be reached, it’s important to play younger players. It’s important to play them so they can get in-game experience. It’s important to play them so you can evaluate them. It’s important to play them to continue building the future of your franchise.
Just because something is important doesn’t make it easy.
For coaches, playing rookies and young players can be difficult. More mistakes are made, silly turnovers happen and there are lapses. It’s a necessary process, but can be painful. Sometimes, though, there will be a glimmer of sunlight.
On Wednesday night, in an 88-78 victory over the Washington Wizards, the Toronto Raptors found their ray of sunshine in rookie Jonas Valanciunas.
"He can pass the basketball and he can defend," coach Dwane Casey said of his rookie. "That is huge for him. That growth on his part has been huge…he is getting the respect of the officials and the respect of the league."
Playing nearly 41 minutes, Valanciunas scored a career-high 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Making four of his seven field-goal attempts, the seven-footer went to the free-throw line 18 times. He made 16 of those 18 attempts.
"That's amazing," DeMar DeRozan said. "Somebody was getting calls. That's a good thing. That's just him playing hard and being aggressive. It's definitely big, especially for a rookie, especially with a double-double as well. That's going to go a long way."
Valanciunas' night helped turn things around for the Raptors after another uninspired first half that saw Toronto trailing by 11 at the half. After a disappointing start, the Raptors stepped things up in the third while the Wizards fell apart.
Playing on the second night of a back-to-back, Washington struggled to get anything going offensively in the second half. As a team, the Wizards made just seven field goals after the break, including an awful third quarter where they shot just 4-for-21 from the floor and were outscored by Toronto 29-12.
Taking a six-point lead into the fourth, the Raptors were able to answer every Wizards push and the lead never dipped below three points.
"They were being aggressive and they just took control of the game," John Wall said. "They were more aggressive to start the second half and we needed to be that way to close out the game."
Wizards head coach Randy Wittman agreed with his point guard.
"We came out the second half and shot around 20 per cent," he said. "There was no pace to the game. We had no movement, which was disappointing. To be up 11 at the half and then go through the motions…we need that killer instinct and we have not shown it."
It was a big win for Toronto because it came with two of their rookies playing big minutes. In addition to Valanciunas' big night, Quincy Acy, recently recalled from the Bakersfield Jam, came off the bench to play nearly 20 minutes and add eight points. Acy also used up five of his personal fouls and picked up a technical after getting tangled with Jan Vesely in the third quarter.
While the whistle was blown quickly for Acy, Valanciunas was getting the benefit of the doubt from the officials.
DeRozan -- who added 25 points in the victory -- was happy about the respect his teammate had earned.
"It's tough, period," DeRozan said of earning respect from the officials. "For all of us in here. When the refs see you out there playing hard every time down, not giving up, battling with the bigs, it becomes obvious and I think the refs are starting to see that."
While his teammates were quick to praise him, Valanciunas returned the favour, attributing the win to everyone that played.
"The most important thing is the victory," Valanciunas said. "I'm happy that we won today. I was just playing my game."