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.
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.
The Raptors have the second-lowest amount of post touches and paint touches per game. Of the 46 times that Valanciunas touches the ball per game, only about four are in the post, meaning that in restricted minutes, Valanciunas seldom gets the ball in a scoring position, despite showing that he can convert well over half of his field goal attempts.
Casey, in creating an offensive scheme that prioritizes the strengths of the team's two best players, has inadvertently delayed the development of the players that have to share a floor with them. Valanciunas's natural development is being hindered by an offensive system designed almost exclusively for other players.
Correcting the Paradox
Rectifying the scenario in which Valanciunas finds himself trapped is no easy task. As mentioned, this is mostly because the Raptors offensive strategy is inherently exclusive, and their decision to re-sign Lowry on a three-year deal constitutes a doubling down on the previously discussed game plan. It's also partly because Valanciunas plays with a somewhat antiquated style better suited to an NBA team from decades prior.
That being said, there is one adjustment that Casey could make to the Raptors game plan which might greatly benefit Valanciunas as well as the team as a whole. Valanciunas could come off the bench as a sixth man, similar to the how the Milwaukee Bucks used Greg Monroe in the 2016 season.
The Raptors are heading into the 2017-2018 season with an unusually young and inexperienced bench, the average amount of NBA experience being just over one season. Inserting Valanciunas into the mix and giving him free offensive reign might help his development and his overall value by turning him into the focal point of the Toronto's second-unit.
Nate Wolf has previously written about this, stating that Valanciunas has the potential to dominate backup centers.
He has elite size, standing at seven feet and weighing 265 pounds. He's also very mobile and has good awareness with respect to spacing. While he's not ridiculously athletic, he's strong enough to get inside position on his man and finish with contact. This, plus a variety of moves down low, including the best pump fake in the game, make up his offensive repertoire.
If Valanciunas were to come off the bench next season, he stands to improve his game by being forced to carry the offensive load for the Raptors when Lowry and DeRozan are out of the game. A figurative trial by fire, so to speak.
He may not get more minutes, but coming off the bench almost guarantees that he'll get more touches. More touches equate to more opportunities to score or pass the ball, which should really help Valanciunas come into his own.
It's also worth mentioning that Valanciunas has textbook form and a really soft touch on his midrange jumper. With more touches, there is no reason to assume that Valanciunas wouldn't be able to extend his range beyond the arc in order to adapt to current NBA trends.
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.