Andre Drummond vs. Jonas Valanciunas: Which Center Will Have Better NBA Career?

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 24, 2013

Both Jonas Valanicunas and Andre Drummond are special talents, but which one will have the better career?
Both Jonas Valanicunas and Andre Drummond are special talents, but which one will have the better career?Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

It's not often you hear this sentence when talking about the modern-day NBA, but fans everywhere should be jealous of the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors.  

Andre Drummond and Jonas Valanciunas took summer league by storm, and both appear prepared to become the next great centers in the NBA. In a sport where big men matter quite a bit, that bodes well for the two recently beleaguered franchises. 

That begs the question, though: Which center will have a better NBA career? 

Will it be the highly hyped Andre Drummond, who shocked draft experts when his rawness didn't lead to rookie struggles? Or will it be Jonas Valanciunas, the big man who has consistently flown under the radar before this summer?

Let's break it down. 

Summer League Performance

While Drummond wasn't the MVP of the Orlando Summer League—sitting out hurt him in the race with Jeremy Lamb—he was still the most dominant player there. The same can be said about Valanciunas in Las Vegas, and he actually did win MVP. 

Both big men didn't take long to prove themselves against the weaker competition, and the results weren't exactly fair for the rest of the league. Below you can see their per-game stats from the respective leagues: 

Andre Drummond15.514.
Jonas Valanciunas18.810.

To put Drummond's rebounding in perspective, Miles Plumlee finished second in Orlando by averaging 9.5 boards per contest. He was much better defensively and on the glass than his Lithuanian counterpart, but his offensive output lagged well behind. 

The most troubling aspect of Drummond's performance is the last number: his free-throw shooting. 

After he made a putrid 37.1 percent from the charity stripe during his rookie season, the Connecticut product needed to use the offseason to improve his shooting. The early returns don't look so good, as Drummond's free-throw percentage actually got worse. 

According to Basketball-Reference's play-index tools, Drummond is now one of only seven players in NBA history to make under 40 percent of their freebies while attempting at least 150 shots. The other six are Wilt Chamberlain, Ben Wallace, DeAndre Jordan, Michael Smith, Brendan Haywood and Chris Dudley.

While everything else about Drummond looked good, this lack of improvement pushed him behind Valanciunas.

It's all about showing progress, and that's exactly what JV did across the board. The same can be said for Drummond in certain categories, but not all of them. 

When both players are absolutely dominant, you have to pick nits. Sorry, Andre, but that makes you the loser in this category. 

Winner: Jonas Valanciunas


Part of having a good career involves being placed in a favorable situation. For a current example, take Derrick Favors. 

The development of the Georgia Tech product has been slowed rather significantly because he's been stuck behind Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap throughout his admittedly young NBA career. In his third season, Favors set a career high in minutes: 23.2 per game. 

He was a per-minute stud, and he'll finally get a chance to start during the 2013-14 season following the departures of the incumbent frontcourt starters, but his growth has been slowed down by a lack of opportunity. 

Valanciunas and Drummond have already both received pretty sizable chances, and that won't change much as they enter their sophomore seasons. While the former started 57 of his 62 games and averaged 23.9 minutes per contest, the latter started 10 of 60, averaging 20.7 minutes. 

In Toronto, there is no longer anyone who should keep Valanciunas from playing typical starter's minutes. He's the unquestioned starter at center, backed up only by Aaron Gray. At power forward, it's not like Amir Johnson, Tyler Hansbrough and Quincy Acy are talented enough that they necessitate playing time. 

It would be rather shocking if the big man wasn't able to top 30 minutes per game during his second go-around north of the border. 

The same can't be said for Drummond. 

While he and Greg Monroe have firm grips on center and power forward, respectively, Detroit will inevitably be pressed into playing small ball. The Pistons spent too much money on Josh Smith to leave him out to dry as a small forward, and his minutes will inevitably come at the expense of either Drummond or Monroe. 

Frontcourt depth won't be problematic for the young big man—Vyacheslav Kravtsov, Tony Mitchell and Charlie Villanueva don't need too many minutes—but the allure of a small-ball lineup with Smoove at the 4 will. 

Thirty minutes per game aren't out of the question, but they're far less likely for Drummond than Valanciunas. 

Winner: Jonas Valanciunas

Offensive Skills

Right off the bat, Valanciunas looks like the more skilled offensive player. 

He scored more points, recorded more assists and showed off a wider variety of offensive moves during his rookie season. In fact, the big man shot 126 jumpers throughout the 2012-13 campaign, making just under 40 percent of them, per Basketball-Reference

Drummond, meanwhile, went 11-of-48 on his jumpers. Other than the one random three-pointer he made against the Denver Nuggets, he only knocked down two shots from outside the paint during the entire 60-game stretch. 

However, Valanciunas' better versatility doesn't necessarily point toward more offensive dominance.

Take Shaquille O'Neal, for example. Even in his prime, he rarely made shots from outside the paint, but no one would argue that there were many better offensive centers. Complete and utter dominance around the basket can make a player superior on offense. 

Drummond shot slightly worse at the rim than Valanciunas—68.8 percent to 69.7 percent—but he also took 114 more attempts while playing in fewer games. He has a natural ability to finish plays at the basket, both by slamming it home after an offensive rebound or cutting to the basket for an alley-oop finish in either transition or the half-court set. 

Once you dive even deeper, though, it becomes clear how offensively superior Valanciunas is. 

The above stats come from Synergy Sports (subscription required) and show the number of points per possession that the two centers scored in certain situations during the 2012-13 campaign. Other than cuts to the basket, the Toronto big man was clearly superior in every category. 

There was an especially noticeable difference in post-up situations and when the players had the chance to finish at the basket. The former shouldn't come as a surprise, but the fact that Valanciunas was markedly better off offensive rebounds and in transition should.

Drummond might be an athletic specimen, but he's not that superior to the other player in question. 

Both players were particularly effective as roll men in pick-and-roll sets. Drummond finished 24th in the NBA, but Valanciunas topped that, coming in at No. 16. That and off offensive rebounds (he also ranked No. 16) is where the Lithuanian center truly thrived. 

The PnR dominance is especially apparent in the embedded video. 

For the third category in a row, Valanciunas reigns supreme. He wasn't just a player who scored more than Drummond, but a center who did more in more efficient fashion while showing off a much larger arsenal of offensive skills. 

Drummond's lofty potential may well allow him to develop a more well-rounded game on this end of the court, but it would be foolish to bet on him here when he trails Valanciunas, another high-potential player, by a sizable margin at this stage. 

Winner: Jonas Valanciunas

Defensive Skills

After losing the offensive battle, the quest for playing time and the summer league competition, Drummond has some work to do with his defensive skills if he wants to come out on top of the overall clash.

Courtesy of Synergy Sports (subscription required), let's go ahead and take an initial look at how the two centers fare in certain defensive situations: 

Quite frankly, it's not even close. 

Valanciunas is the better defender when his man is spotting up for a jumper, allowing opponents to score only 38.4 percent of the time. Drummond lags behind at 44.3 percent, but he more than makes up for the difference elsewhere. 

The biggest gap comes in isolation sets, where the Piston blows the Raptor out of the water. Then again, you could say that about their overall individual defense as well. 

Drummond allowed 0.82 points per possession in 2012-13, allowing him to come in at No. 87 on the overall leaderboard. You have to drop all the way to No. 279 in order to find Valanciunas, who allowed 0.9 points per possession. 

While this difference hasn't yet manifested itself in their respective team's overall defensive numbers, it will soon enough. Especially after adding Josh Smith to the starting lineup, the Pistons are poised to be a dominant point-preventing powerhouse in the frontcourt. 

What makes Drummond's individual numbers even more impressive is the fact that he was often asked to help off his man. If you're looking for a reason as to why he struggled against spot-up shooters, there it is. 

As evidenced by his skill against the roll man in pick-and-roll sets, he clearly has the quickness and recovery time necessary to excel in that situation. In fact, Drummond's PnR defense was borderline elite during his first professional season.

Recovering to his man just wasn't his main concern as a rookie, as he was instead asked to protect the rim and block shots. With Monroe next to him, no one else could consistently challenge shots at the basket, but that changes with Smoove in town. 

There's little doubt that Drummond is light years ahead of Valanciunas in this category. While the Toronto center could develop into a quality defender down the road, his Detroit counterpart is already there, with the potential to become a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. 

Winner: Andre Drummond


At this point, we get to recap the four categories and add in rebounding. That last part works well for Drummond, as he's clearly better on the boards. 

When I say "clearly," I mean that it's so blindingly obvious that there's no possible way even a basketball neophyte could manage to mistake Valanciunas for the better rebounder of the two. 

Those stats up above, courtesy of Basketball-Reference, show the percentage of available rebounds that the two centers snatched when they were on the court. Even though offensive and defensive rebounding require to completely separate skill sets, Drummond was easily superior in each. 

That's why he averaged 1.6 more boards per game despite spending less time on the court. 

The former Husky has that, his defensive play and his lofty potential working in his favor. Is it enough to trump the categories that Valanciunas won? 

Because he's not even close to the Lithuanian big man in those two areas, the answer is a hesitant "yes."

Valanciunas might have a better sophomore season due to more opportunity for success, but that will change as their careers progress. His offensive prowess alone isn't enough to cancel out Drummond's defensive dominance, and summer league play only counts for so much. 

Both of these centers appear set to have magnificent and lengthy NBA careers, but it's Drummond who has the better chance at becoming an All-Star during his time in the Association.

Overall Winner: Andre Drummond 


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