Where a player lands on the draft has an impact on his career. That’s especially true early on, when the perception about a newcomer is only in its formative stage. Michael-Carter Williams has a Rookie of the Year trophy because the rebuilding 76ers ran their offense through him despite his struggles while Dennis Shröeder languished on the Hawks’ bench, unable to crack the rotation of a team that had a starter entrenched at his position. Carter-Williams got the accolades but a year later it’s hard to tell who the better prospect is.
Raptors’ center Jonas Valanciunas is suffering the same fate as Schröeder and a lot of other young players on good teams before them: he doesn’t shine as bright or put eye-popping numbers because his team doesn’t need him to and that has led to him being underrated. He’s rarely mentioned as a future star because he’s been asked to play a smaller role than others yet a close look at his performance shows that he is one of the best centers in the league at only 22 years old.
Valanciunas’ numbers won’t blow anyone away at first glance, but they are rare. He’s one of just 19 players to average more than 10 points, seven rebounds and a block a game, a list that includes only the league’s best big men. For players under 23 years old, only three others match that output: Derrick Favors, Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond. Per minute, he’s one of the most productive players around, averaging 16.4 points, 11.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes on the court. And he has improved every year he’s been in the league.
Numbers alone don’t tell the story but consider this: Valanciunas ranks seventh in the league in field goal percentage despite not being a typical pick and roll finisher in the Tyson Chandler/DeAndre Jordan role. In fact, his offensive versatility is what makes Valanciunas unique in a league that is embracing specialist at the center position more and more often. Valanciunas can create his own shot from the post, shoot short jumpers and do a solid job as a screen and roll finisher. Few players that young display the awareness, strength and touch JV routinely shows.
Defensively, Valanciunas struggled at times early in his career, like most young bigs. He’s made strides this season, however, to the point where he’s a neutral overall defender at worse. His rim protection numbers have improved greatly, going from a ghastly 51.4 percent allowed to a stellar 46.1 percent, a number that is comparable to Robin Lopez’s and better than Tim Duncan’s and Marc Gasol’s. He still has a hard time defending in space against quick players but is coming along nicely on that area as well by understanding this limitations and taking a conservative approach that helps him prevent penetration.
So Valanciunas is a good rim protector who scores super efficiently and can create his own shot. The list of players that fit that criteria is extremely short. When you add the fact that he’s an above-average free throw shooter to boot and is 22 years old, it becomes obvious that he’s a special talent. So why isn’t he considered a potential star? In his annual trade value column, Bill Simmons lists Andre Drummond, Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid and Hassan Whiteside as the young bigs with the most trade value and Valanciunas’ name is nowhere to be found.
The biggest knock on Jonas — and one that is completely reasonable — is that he doesn’t make his team better. The Raptors get outscored when he’s on the court and are a disaster defensively despite Valanciunas’ talent. While advanced stats that measure individual performance like Wins Produced and Player Efficiency Rating like Valanciunas, team-oriented ones like Real Plus Minus consider him a replacement-level player. The Raptors are in a slump right now, and Valanciunas’ play is not exactly helping them when they need it the most. Yet it would be extremely unfair to put the blame solely on Jonas’ shoulders.
The Raptors are reliant on scoring guards for offense and, with all due respect to Patrick Patterson, they have no stretch power forward in the roster that commands the defense’s attention. That combination marginalizes Valanciunas as a pick and roll thread and limits the touches he gets. He often has to operate with mediocre spacing and settle for post ups instead of feasting on open looks created for him, like other centers get. Simply put, he’s either involved in plays that won’t result in easy shots or not involved at all and hurting the spacing for his teammates.
Defensively, the Raptors don’t have a consistent pick and roll scheme. Valanciunas drops backs on almost every screen to deter penetration, which is a very effective tactic when there’s communication between the two defenders involved. But because every other big man on the roster hedge on screens, there are occasional breakdowns in coverage due to confusion as to how the team is defending a particular play. Toronto doesn’t have the perimeter defenders who can fight through screens to accommodate Valanciunas’ preferred method of containment and Valanciunas can’t hedge because of his lack of foot speed. The two problems have more to do with roster construction and coaching than with any individual players.
Even with some of his limitations and his inability to have a decidedly positive effect on his team’s play so far in his career, Valanciunas is one of the most intriguing young prospects in the league. Had he been drafted by a rebuilding team that featured him more often and built a roster to fit his strengths, he would likely be considered a star in the making. Because he’s a part of team with championship aspirations, however, he’s been asked to perform like a veteran despite this being just his third year in the league and when he fails to do that, his reputation suffers.
I’m sure Valanciunas wouldn’t trade playing in games that matter for more individual accolades and I’m sure that the Raptors, unlike many casual fans, truly recognize they have a gem. With time, Valanciunas could become one of the best players in the league. Watching him evolve and get there will continue to be fascinating for those who are paying attention.