Catch-17: The Jonas Valanciunas Paradox

Jonas Valanciunas has star potential. But, he isn't getting the minutes and the touches that he needs in order to improve and get more minutes and more touches. This article logically explores why this might the case, and how the Toronto Raptors could go about rectifying this situation.

A paradox, with respect to this article, refers to a cyclical scenario in which one cannot easily escape because of seemingly contradictory rules.

Jonas Valanciunas is stuck in just such a scenario.

Valanciunas, for all his natural ability, has been unable to find an expanded role on the Toronto Raptors. Because to take on more significant minutes and get more touches, Valanciunas has to have shown in-game development, which he hasn’t been able to do largely because his minutes and his touches have been limited throughout his career.

If his rookie season is any indicator of what could have been, Valanciunas could have developed in a comparable manner to Brook Lopez. However, Valanciunas never saw the requisite spike in minutes that Lopez saw with the Nets.

Below are each player's numbers from their respective rookie seasons, adjusted to 36 minutes of play.

Player FG FGA FG% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
Jonas Valanciunas 5.0 8.9 .557 3.5 4.5 .789 2.9 6.1 9.0 1.1 0.4 1.9 2.3 4.6 13.5
Brook Lopez 6.4 12.1 .531 2.5 3.1 .793 3.2 6.3 9.6 1.2 0.6 2.2 2.1 3.7 15.4

While Valanciunas went on to stagnate from a statistical perspective, Lopez improved his numbers in conjunction with semi-regular increases in playing time.

At age 25, Valanciunas still has plenty of time to develop. He’ll be entering his prime in the coming years, and if the paradoxical circumstances surrounding him bend, he should be able to realize his potential à la Lopez.

Suffering by Circumstance

Up until this point, however, Valanciunas has been hindered by his situation.

While Dwane Casey has never had the final say in building Toronto’s roster, the players selected on his behalf necessitate conducting a specific offensive strategy, often to the benefit of one or two players and to the detriment of everyone else on the floor.

In other words, a team highlighted by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will naturally turn to these two players for the bulk of its offense, which was obviously the case in Toronto.

Even though Lowry and DeRozan weren’t as prolific in 2012 as they are now, Casey cemented the decision to build Toronto’s offensive game plan around this budding duo. The results of which have been mixed.

As a whole, the team has seen relative success. The Raptors have made the playoffs every year since 2013 and have consistently been one of the better scoring teams in the league. They’ve also done a phenomenal job at limiting turnovers during Casey’s tenure as coach.

Yet, the team has also had its fair share of struggles. While Lowry is a good individual passer, the team has struggled to move the ball as a whole. Toronto has consistently been in the bottom third of the league in total passes per game, landing at the 27th spot in the 2016 season. To make matters worse, they’ve also been one of the worst teams in the league in terms of setting up teammates, coming in dead last for potential and actual assists per game during the 2016 season.

William Lou pointed out as much, noting that the Raptors have prioritized possessions by running their offense almost exclusively through Lowry and DeRozan in an effort to limit turnovers. This has implicitly limited opportunities for anyone else.

The offense has been dominated by Lowry and DeRozan pick-and-roll plays, in which these two players would either take the ball straight to the rim or stop for a quick jumper. Lowry and DeRozan have both increased their usage rates significantly, to the point that DeRozan has the third highest usage rate in the league. This, combined with the fact that the Raptors are currently atop the league in terms of points scored by the ball handler in pick-and-roll sets, seems to indicate a predictable, stagnant offense that, despite its relative effectiveness, works to freeze out any player not named Kyle or DeMar.

This is especially true with respect to Valanciunas, who may very well lead the league in calling for the ball and never actually getting it.

Allowing Valanciunas to run the second-unit could theoretically benefit the team by closing the talent gap between the starters and the bench players. Put another way, the Raptors might not have to worry about getting blown out of the game when Lowry and DeRozan are resting.

In line with this point, moving Valanciunas to the bench, as opposed to having it anchored by Lowry or DeRozan, could theoretically benefit the team by affording Kyle and DeMar more time for rest. This has been a major point of contention surrounding the team for the last couple of seasons, as playing over 35 minutes per game has often left Lowry and DeRozan burnt out and prone to injury come playoffs.

These are only a few of the benefits that might be reaped by turning Valanciunas into a sixth man. Most notable, however, is the possibility of Valanciunas escaping the paradox in which he is confined, finally fulfilling his potential as an all-star in the NBA.

If none of these changes happen, Valanciunas has the option to become a free agent in the 2019-2020 season. He'll be 27 then, still young enough to improve, and could very well become a star with a change of scenery.

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com.


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