Just under a week ago, the Raptors were coming off back-to-back losses against Milwaukee and Brooklyn. Any positivity from the six-game winning streak that had preceded Toronto’s two-game skid was long gone. And the buzz in Raptorland, yet again, was the use of Jonas Valanciunas—specifically in the fourth quarter—and why the young centre often spends crunch time planted on the pine.
The doubts have been quieted again following big wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs. But in those victories, Valanciunas played a total of three fourth-quarter minutes. I recently caught up with Sportsnet television analyst Leo Rautins to get his read on the JV saga.
Rautins—a former coach and player, and a fellow Lithuanian—pulled no punches in his assessment of Valanciunas’ game and development.
Eric Smith: Is [Valanciunas’s lack of fourth-quarter minutes] just the progression of a young player?
Leo Rautins: [The first component], which everyone is talking about: This league is going small. You look at a lot of games—especially down the stretch of games—teams are keeping one big on the floor and that big is not a true big, it may be a power forward, and everyone is trying to play quicker. That’s just the evolution of this league. So players like [Valanciunas], Andre Drummond and other bigs really get hurt in that situation.
But—and, arguably, this may be the most important: Valanciunas has to demand the basketball.
When guys have taken three or four crazy shots, he has to go up to his guards and grab them by the shirt and say, “Give me the damn ball. Now.”
But here’s what happens [when you do that]: You demanded the ball, so you better deliver when you get the ball. You’re putting pressure on yourself but you’re also getting respect from your teammates.
If he’s not doing that, that tells you something. It tells you that maybe he’s not ready for that. So the sum of this falls on [Valanciunas]—as much as everybody is talking about the coach and his teammates. So I’m not buying what’s been written and I’m not buying the way it has been written and the way people are talking about it because there truly are many factors involved.
ES: Let me play devil’s advocate. As a former NBA player and a guy who has been there as a coach [for the Canadian national team] making the decisions, how do you ‘learn’ if you don’t get an opportunity to be out there? How do you become better?
LR: How many minutes per game does Valanciunas play?
ES: On average, 28? [Note: It’s actually 26.4 at present]
LR: So that 28 minute a night audition isn’t enough to show the coach that you can do that?
ES: So the fact that he isn’t playing in the fourth is the answer? He hasn’t shown enough?
LR: Let’s not talk about the fourth quarter. If I’m a coach and you show me that you can handle pick-and-rolls and you can [avoid being] exposed by smaller, quicker players, why am I going to take you out?
If you’re telling me that on the season he’s averaged 28 minutes a game, I do believe that’s enough time to show you can do that. So now it comes down to if the coach is confident enough that you can be the guy to do it, or he feels more confident that somebody else can do that job.
ES: If teammates aren’t recognizing [when Valanciunas has a hot hand], what can you do as the coach?
LR: At some point, it’s not just on the coach—this is what really drives me nuts. The players have a responsibility to see and feel the game.
If nobody is making a shot, why would you come down and take a bad shot?
I can show you a hundred replays of the ball going inside-out, and they’re all great shots. I could show you a hundred replays where a team just comes down and shoots from the outside and if they miss, the other team is going the other way and it’s a terrible situation.
These guys are watching the same tapes I’m watching.
Believe me, the coaches are talking. Dwane Casey is not sitting there silent. He’s telling guys, “We need to go inside. We need to slow it down. We need to go inside-out.” He’s saying that. But it falls on the players to do that.
ES: Do you believe that Valanciunas has it in him right now to be that guy to grab Lowry or DeRozan and say “Give me the ball and I will perform”?
LR: I will ask you a similar question: Have you seen him do it?
ES: If I have, it’s certainly not enough.
LR: Right. That answers your question. If he really was ready for multiple touches, then he would be demanding the ball. Because now it’s a confidence thing, now it’s a respect thing.
If [Valanciunas] runs up and down the court six times, for example, and there were six jump-shots taken and he’s sitting with a double-double, he’s got to walk into the timeout and rip everybody a new one and say, “Give me the ball.”
But then he has to live up to that. That means you can’t throw the ball away; you’ve got to make a play. You want your teammates to be conscious of you. If you let them forget about you, they’re going to forget about you.
I’ve told shooters [as a coach]: When you step on the floor on the first day of training camp, shoot! Cause I want every guy to know you’re a shooter. When I want to get an assist or I want to make a play, you’re the guy I want to look for. If you’re not going to shoot whenever you get it—and you’re a shooter—then you’re not in my conscious thoughts.
It’s the same thing with a big man. Let people know you’re there. Be vocal. And if you’re going to be vocal demanding the ball, you’re going to be more vocal on defence. Learn to be vocal.
ES: Everything you’re saying seems to point back to Valanciunas himself.
LR: This is a team game. And every single factor we’ve talked about is a part of this. Dwane Casey is a part of this. Everybody on the floor is a part of this. And Jonas Valanciunas is a part of this. But if Valanciunas is truly ready to be that guy that everybody is clamouring for, he’s going to be demanding [the ball].
Casey has made some great points—saying everybody wants this kid here, at this level, but maybe he’s not quite there yet. Valanciunas is still growing; he’s still understanding.
Again, if JV wants to be on the floor in the fourth quarter and defence is the issue, well you’re playing 28 minutes a game—show me!
Show me that I have no issues leaving you out there. Show me that you’re going to rotate. Show me that you’re going to drop. Show me that you’re going to get out and contest.
If you’re playing Golden State and in the first half Marreese Speights is on the floor and he’s hitting jumpers, show me that you can take that away and I’ll play you in the fourth quarter. Simple as that.
If Greg Monroe isn’t beating you off the dribble in the first half, I’ll let you play against him in the fourth quarter cause I know he won’t beat you off the dribble.
I don’t buy the argument that [Valanciunas] won’t gain the experience of playing in the fourth quarter.
Earn the experience of playing in the fourth quarter. Earn it. Everybody wants to hand it out.
Earn that opportunity.