After winning the MVP award of the Las Vegas Summer League, Valanciunas is on his way to becoming a household name not just in Canada, but in the rest of the world too.
That statement is worth another look.
A player who won the MVP of a summer league, not the NBA or even a European league, is going to become a household name.
As strange as it sounds, it’s fairly accurate. Even before he won the award, writers such as Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated were advocating for him to be named as MVP. Even general manager Masai Ujiri called him a “huge piece” for the team, per The National Post's Eric Koreen.
Even prior to this summer, the hype was following Valanciunas. After all, the Toronto Raptors selected him with their No.5 pick in the 2011 NBA draft despite the fact that they had to wait another year before he could even join the team.
An organization has to have a lot of faith in a prospect to pull off a move like that, especially in the lottery. It’s even more impressive that the team opted to wait for him to come over rather than pick another player like Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker or Nikola Vucevic, all of whom appear to be future stars.
So whether by design or chance, Valanciunas has always had a mystique about him and his game. After his crowning as the MVP, that mystique has changed into both excitement as well as pressure.
Excitement over what sort of ceiling Valanciunas has and pressure on him to deliver on his potential and reach that ceiling.
So while it’s popular opinion right now to think that he’s going to come into next season and carry the Raptors into the playoffs, those expectations may need to be slightly tempered for both the fans and Valanciunas’ sake.
*All statistics acquired via NBA.com.
Last season, Valanciunas had averages of 8.9 points, six rebounds, 1.3 blocks and a 55.7 field-goal percentage in 23.9 minutes of action.
What stands out right away are his offensive numbers.
While at first glance 8.9 points a game doesn’t appear to be much, it’s very indicative of his scoring acumen given his high field-goal percentage and low playing time.
Valanciunas was the only rookie this past season to average nine points with a 55.7 field-goal percentage. While other comparable rookies like Andre Drummond had a higher field-goal percentage (60.8), he only averaged 7.9 points.
Valanciunas was also fourth among rookies in free throws attempted, ahead of Bradley Beal, Drummond and Harrison Barnes.
Clearly, Valanciunas had a solid first season offensively. Not only was he aggressive going to the rim and looking for his shot, but he also demonstrated patience with the ball, as demonstrated by his sky-high shooting percentage.
He’s proved that he can be an important piece of the Raptors offense. He’s mobile, can run the floor, can shoot from 10 to 14 feet (46.2 field-goal percentage from mid-range), and has demonstrated a crafty and opportunistic post game.
However, he’s still slim for an NBA center, which can really hurt him when he goes against players like Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah and Nikola Pekovic. It’s not to say that Valanciunas can’t hold his own with bigger players, but at some point the burden of bruising with them is going to wear him down and limit his offense capability.
His offensive production next season will be reliant on a couple of factors, including how much weight he puts on this summer.
Of particular importance will be the play of his teammates and the Raptors’ general offensive philosophy. Valanciunas was able to get solid looks throughout the season despite the team basically running its offense through the wing players. Luckily, Valanciunas was able to get his shots up from pick-and-rolls, post plays and easy putbacks.
If he can manage nine points while sharing the ball with high-volume scorers in DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay in only his first season, he should definitely be able to up his scoring next season.
It’s understandable if the team wants to continue its wing attack, as it does get the bulk of its production from there, but it will be imperative that the playmakers (DeRozan, Gay and Kyle Lowry) all make a conscious effort to get Valanciunas the ball in the paint.
They don’t need to call a play for him every time down the floor, but the more he dominates inside, the better looks the Raptors’ wing players will get.
Valanciunas won’t be the offensive heart of this team next season—it’s just not built the right way for that to happen. However, he will be one of the team’s top offensive options, especially when the Raptors need to establish a post presence and slow down the pace of the game.
The following are predictions for his offensive statistics:
Assists: 2.5 (he’s a better passer than his assist average from last year shows).
Field-goal percentage: 53.7 (his shooting percentage will naturally dip because the number of shots he'll take are a lock to increase).
As previously mentioned, Valanciunas came into the NBA last season with a light body—231 pounds to be exact. However, per Sportsnet.ca's Holly MacKenzie, head coach Dwayne Casey raved about the work Valanciunas has done on his body:
Jonas’ upper body is great. He’s got to make sure it doesn't slow him down but so far he’s done a good job with his upper body and he’s got to have that with the bumps and the bangs, especially with the rebounds and physical play in the paint.
It’s great news that Valanciunas has worked on his body, because the Raptors will need him, alongside Amir Johnson, to anchor the team’s interior defense.
Valanciunas proved in summer league how dominant he can be on offense, but it may be more important for the team’s success that he excel even more on the defensive end.
DeRozan, Gay and Lowry are all very capable defenders and rebounders, but their talents alone won’t constitute an effective perimeter defense. Even if Casey figures it out and designs a defensive scheme that maximizes their athleticism and length, the team will still need a fail-safe on the inside.
Valancinuas has to be that fail-safe. In today’s NBA where point guards are faster and more explosive than ever before, it’s never been more important to have elite rim protection. Valanciunas showed last season that he’s a capable pick-and-roll defender and that he can block shots, so with the weight he’s gained, he should have a much easier time challenging attacking guards and holding down the paint.
It will also be essential for him to improve his rebounding numbers, as that would truly be an indicator of his work ethic and motor, as well as a critical factor in the Raptors’ playoff hopes.
Defensively, here are some predictions for Valanciunas:
The reigning Las Vegas Summer League MVP has a lot of pressure on his shoulders going into next season. He’s no longer under the radar, and he’ll be a key figure on opposing teams' scouting reports.
He probably won’t be an All-Star next season, but the phrase “franchise player” and Jonas Valanciunas are definitely going to be attached at the hip for years to come.