The key to the Toronto Raptors 2013-14 season’s success will rest squarely on the shoulders of sophomore center Jonas Valanciunas.
The potential surrounding Valanciunas has been well documented, and if the seven-footer can begin to reach it the Raptors could be looking at their first playoff berth since the Chris Bosh era.
The center will be Toronto’s most important player as the season progresses due to his abilities on both ends of the floor. If he can show signs of a gradual improvement with his skills and confidence on the court, he’ll be a greater contributor to the team than Rudy Gay or DeMar DeRozan.
Valanciunas’ rookie numbers weren’t spectacular by any means, with averages per game of only 8.9 points, six rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in 23.9 minutes. However, he shot the ball remarkably well for a first-year player, averaging 55.7 percent from the floor and 78.9 percent from the foul line.
Although his rookie numbers left fans wanting more, the games where Valanciunas displayed what could be to come have fans excited about the center’s future. Performances like his 22 points, seven rebounds, three assists, and three blocks going head-to-head against Tim Duncan, while shooting 9-for-13 from the floor or the 11.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.1 blocks, 62 percent from the floor and 82.2 percent from the foul line in 27.1 minutes, Valanciunas averaged in the month of March prove he only got stronger and more comfortable as his first season progressed. If Valanciunas could manage season averages somewhere in the ballpark of what he was able to produce last March, the Raptors will be very pleased with his development.
As he grows more comfortable with the NBA game, Valanciunas will grow into a much more difficult player to contain on the offensive end. His speed and mobility for a player his size is extremely rare, which provides him with the type of blow-by speed not often seen in big men. He’s an excellent shooter, capable of knocking down an 18-foot jump shot with regularity which will give opposing centers, who don’t want to leave the paint, a difficult time trying to guard him.
If opposing centers attempt to defend Valanciunas’ jumpers outside the paint, the sophomore will be able to blow by them given his mobility. Also, if the defenders follow Valanciunas outside of the paint, then it’ll have freed up the lane for Gay or DeRozan to attack the rim. If the opposing center chooses to remain underneath the basket, attempting to deny Gay or DeRozan from driving, then the swingmen will be able to kick it out to Valanciunas for an uncontested mid-range jumper.
Valanciunas also showed over the summer how much his back-to-the-basket game has improved. He was named the 2013 Las Vegas Summer League MVP after averaging 18.8 points, and 10 rebounds, while shooting 56 percent from the floor and 88 percent from the foul line. Valanciunas dominated the paint during the summer league, as nobody was able to contain the center. What makes him even harder to guard is unlike most big men who can’t shoot free-throws, opponents can’t foul Valanciunas due to his excellent percentage from the line.
As great as Valanciunas’ offensive improvements have been, perhaps where the true potential lies will be his defensive game. The seven-footer has the potential to be the team’s defensive anchor, as long as he’s able to avoid the rookie fouls that plagued him a year ago. Valanciunas has the size, strength, and speed that could see him become a legitimate shot blocker and double-double rebounder. Unfortunately, he can’t accomplish that if he’s only playing 23 minutes a night. If he’s able to average 30 minutes in his sophomore year by eliminating the unnecessary fouls, the Raptors could have one of the best defensive centers in the league.
Valanciunas is proving to be a special prospect who is loaded with potential. He’s the only player in FIBA history to lead his team to gold medals in the U-16, U-18, and U-19 Championships while being named MVP in all three tournaments.
The sky is the limit for the 21-year-old. Raptor fans are now sitting back and hoping he becomes the center who leads them back to the playoffs.