Over the past 20 years, pivot-happy centers and one-dimensional post players have given way to the ”point forwards” and athletic 7-footers of today’s NBA who can be seen leading the fast break and dishing out assists on a nightly basis.
While there are some exceptions, finding a big man who’s content to patrol the paint is rare these days, but the Toronto Raptors seem to have found a great mix of size and athleticism in Jonas Valanciunas.
On Friday night against the playoff-bound Memphis Grizzlies, the second-year center was a huge factor in Toronto’s 99-86 win at the Air Canada Center, and led the Raptors with a very healthy 23 points and nine rebounds.
On top of his offensive contributions, Valanciunas played a solid game defensively against some tough competition on his way to limiting opposing center Marc Gasol to just eight points and three boards, both significantly below his season averages of 13.7 PPG and 6.7 RPG.
It’s performances like this against one of the league’s more talented big-men that the Raptors envisioned when they selected the Lithuanian center with the fifth pick of the 2011 NBA Draft.
Still just 21 years old, Valanciunas first gained notoriety while playing professionally in Europe as a teenager and during his time as a member of the Lithuanian National team before realizing his dream of one day playing in the NBA.
As a rookie last season, the former NBA Summer League MVP averaged a modest 8.9 PPG with 6.0 RPG, but has improved upon those totals in the current campaign with 10.4 PPG and 8.5 RPG in 64 games, all of which have been starts.
Of course, Valanciunas is still relatively new to the NBA’s version of play in the low post, but with Toronto in the midst of its first winning season since 2008, the two-time ”Lithuanian National Player of The Year” has been forced to learn on the fly.
At times, the results have been mixed as Valanciunas continues to learn the ways of an NBA center, but Friday’s performance against Gasol and the Grizzlies signalled another significant step in the development of a player who has become irreplaceable.
But more importantly, the Raptors desperately need the Lithuanian to hold his own against teams like the Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls if they’re going to outlast the two franchises currently after Toronto’s position in the Eastern Conference.
In four games against the Bulls, Valanciunas has produced a pair of double-doubles in two wins, but in the two losses to Chicago, the talented 7-footer struggled on his way to an average of just 6.5 PPG and 6.5 RPG. Against Brooklyn, the results are frustratingly similar with an average of 15.0 PPG and 10.5 RPG in Toronto’s two victories, and an average of only 3.0 PPG and 5.0 RPG in the two losses.
There’s no denying that Valanciunas is critical to the Raptors’ long-term success, but in order to be effective, Toronto will need to have a little more confidence in the youngster and give the talented import consistent floor time regardless of the situation.