Valanciunas slowly evolving into modern-day NBA centre

Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio lead the Utah Jazz to victory over the Toronto Raptors 97-93, despite an exceptional game from Jonas Valanciunas.

TORONTO — Through three quarters of Friday’s game with the Utah Jazz, the Toronto Raptors had made four three-pointers. Jonas Valanciunas was responsible for half of them.

There’s a couple ways to look at that. Sure, the Raptors were shooting atrociously from distance, missing 16 of the 20 three-pointers they’d attempted. And, yes, they finished the night shooting 7-of-27 from range, on one of the worst shooting nights the team’s had all season. That’s not what you want.

It’s why they lost, 97-93. The Raptors ran into an underrated Jazz defence that played hard on the road and contested everything; several very makeable attempts caught just a little bit too much rim; Toronto missed five times from the charity stripe. Or, as Raptors head coach Dwane Casey put it: “we didn’t shoot the ball worth a crap.”

But three-point shooting — all shooting, really — is like taking the TTC: there’s good days and bad. And considering the Raptors are averaging more than 11 three-pointers made per game (fifth in the East) and shooting at a 35.1 per cent clip from range on the season (they shot 26 per cent Friday) this particular poor shooting night probably isn’t worth getting too worked up about. If it becomes two, three or four in a row, then you can raise the concern.

But Valanciunas having a good night from range? Hitting two three-pointers in a game for the first time in his career? Upping his three-point rate to 42 per cent (10-of-24) on the season? Now that’s something.

“I put a lot of work in, you know? I put in a lot of work. And that pays off,” Valanciunas said. “I’m shooting the ball. You know, you cannot be selfish with that. You’ve just got to find the spacing. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Don’t forget, Valanciunas hit exactly one three-pointer in his first five seasons of NBA basketball. Even though he’s only attempted a couple dozen this season, his success with the shot is still quite noteworthy. He attempted only four over the first 363 games of his career. Even though the scale is small, this is a dramatic increase.

And like he said, Valanciunas has been working hard on it. Casey has long said the next step for his starting centre is the addition of that three-point shot — and it’s not an accident that you’re starting to see it more and more.

It makes sense. The physical, lumbering game Valanciunas has played to this point in his career is a vanishing one in the NBA of 2018. Today’s centres can shoot; they can move; they can guard the perimeter. Or they can sit on the bench.

Still only 25, Valanciunas can certainly still evolve. Of course, he’s only so agile. He only has so much fast twitch muscle. He’ll never be Karl-Anthony Towns or Joel Embiid. But if he can continue to hone that three-point shot — the next step will be converting them in traffic — he can make himself a lot more useful to his team.

“The sky’s the limit,” Valanciunas said of his ability from range. “I’ve still got to work a lot and get my shot up to an even better percentage.”

Yes, it’s still a little awkward when the big man lets fly from distance. There’s almost always a pump fake involved, even in the absence of a defender. And usually the Air Canada Centre crowd wants Valanciunas to take the shot before he does, as a loud cheer rings around the arena while he hesitates beyond the arc.

But the more and more the shot falls, the more and more confident Valanciunas will become with it. And the more and more opposing centres will be drawn out to the perimeter to protect against the threat of it. That’s another benefit, as Valanciunas takes advantage of defenders off their feet like he did Friday, when he pump faked Jonas Jerebko beyond the arc and drove to the basket for a loud dunk.

Really, Valanciunas carried the Raptors offence for much of Friday’s loss. Late in the second quarter, he had 15 points and seven rebounds. The rest of his team had 26 points and seven rebounds combined.

By halftime, Valanciunas had 17 points and nine boards. He earned his double-double early in the second half, and the only thing that prevented him from doing more damage was a fourth foul called against him, which sent him to the bench midway through the third.

In the end, Valanciunas had a game-high 28 points, to go along with 14 rebounds and four blocks. The fact he did most of it against Rudy Gobert, one of the best rim protectors in basketball, only makes it that much more impressive.

“We’ve got to help the big fella out,” said DeMar DeRozan. “He played great, dominated the boards.”

“Yeah, he’s playing fantastic,” added Kyle Lowry. “That’s the thing that we need from him. He’s bringing it every night and consistently being a dominant force down there. It’s just a bright spot to see from us.”

Lowry’s right, Valanciunas is on a serious run. He has double-doubles in four of his last five, and has been a plus-30 over that span, despite the Raptors losing two of those games.

And when he picked up his fifth foul with 4:30 to play Friday — a questionable offensive infraction under Utah’s basket — Casey left him on the floor. It wasn’t that long ago that Casey didn’t trust Valanciunas with fourth-quarter minutes at all. Now, he’s getting late-game run without a foul to spare.

Not only that, but Casey ran a play for him late, and although it didn’t quite work out, Valanciunas still drew a foul, went to the line, and made both his shots. We’ll see what happens next. But for now, Valanciunas is playing some of the best basketball of his career.

“He played with a lot of force against one of the best centre defenders in the league,” Casey said. “Attacking the rim, rebounding. Now we’ve got to get everybody else joining the party to play with that type of force to start the game, to set the tone.”

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