January 16, 2019
The Raptors soon have to make a decision on their young center. But can he fit into their future?

Hailing from Lithuania, Jonas Valanciunas was considered a top prospect because of his prototypical franchise center body when the Toronto Raptors took him fifth overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. Since that time, Valanciunas has become a solid rebounder and an extremely high percentage shooter, and has garnered some attention around the league, especially as the Raptors have blossomed.

However, a closer examination of Valanciunas’s impact yields observations that are a far cry from what most NBA fans think about the young big man. With the deadline for an extension of his rookie scale contract approaching quickly, the Raptors will have to make a critical decision. Early deals for players finishing their rookie contracts are the best bargain the league offers, but Valanciunas may represent a case where the team is best off staying put.

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This season, Toronto’s overall net rating is +3.2, ranking ninth in the league and sandwiched between the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies, per NBA.com/stats. However, when Jonas Valanciunas is on the floor, that rating dips all the way to -1.1, closer to low seed teams like the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat. Via NBA.com/stats, Valanciunas is the only Raptor with more than 212 minutes [of whom there are 11] to hold a negative net rating. In fact, when he’s on the bench, their net rating skyrockets all the way to +7.8, a figure that would rank second only to the Golden State Warriors. No other member of the team has an off-court net rating higher than +5.3 (Terrence Ross). In near dramatic fashion, Valanciunas is easily the Raptor of those qualified 11 with the worst on court/off court split.

In total, the Raps hold a top five offense (107.8 points per 100 possessions) and a bottom 10 defense (104.6). When Jonas plays, though, the offense falls from fourth to 11th (104.5) while the defense becomes worse than every team besides the Minnesota Timberwolves, L.A. Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Orlando Magic and New York Knicks (105.6). It’s a significant swing that puts a mid-to-high Eastern Conference playoff seed in the company of lottery teams.

Valanciunas had a negative impact on Toronto last season as well, but only to a small extent. This year, that discrepancy is enormous: Toronto has the net rating of a team fighting for the playoffs in the East when he plays, and one greater than juggernauts like the Hawks when he sits. Both this season and last, Patrick Patterson has rated out far better than Jonas, while Amir Johnson has been a slightly negative player for Toronto this year but excelled in the past. No matter what, the Raptors are superior with Jonas off the floor.

Forcing turnovers is integral to a good defense as well as an effective fast break offense. Valanciunas has the lowest steal rate of any Raptor with more than 16 minutes played at an anemic 0.8 per 100 possessions. Amir Johnson and Patrick Patterson are only at 1.2 and 1.3 respectively, highlighting one reason why the Raptors have so much trouble defending. But even with that, and despite having no regular backup center in their rotation, Toronto fares much better when they go small.

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Of their 12 lineups with at least 50 minutes played together, Valanciunas is included in all five of the negative combinations, and the worst positive one. In contrast, he is only in two of the top six lineups. The Raptors are getting rocked with Valanciunas at center, but when Amir Johnson (+2.3 net rating) slides down and Patrick Patterson (+5.3) or even Tyler Hansbrough (+10.6 in small minutes) plays power forward, they thrive. Furthermore, James Johnson (+7.1 net rating) has been critical from both forward positions. Patterson, James Johnson, Lou Williams (+6.4) and occasionally Hansbrough have been far more effective as a bench unit than pretty much all of Toronto’s starting lineup combinations, almost all of which include Jonas.

On the plus side, Valanciunas has made some strides on the offensive end. In his first two seasons, over 20% of his field goal attempts came from between 10 feet and the three point line, but he converted less than 40% from both those areas, per Basketball-Reference. This season, however, he has brought that volume down below 12% of his attempts, spending far more time in the paint. As a result, his efficiency has never been better; Jonas is shooting 57.1% and drawing 4.9 free throw attempts per 36 minutes, which he knocks down at 79.8%. Valanciunas is also grabbing 12 rebounds per 36 minutes, and his blocks are back up to 1.5 per 36 after dipping to 1.1 last season, while also turning it over at a career-low rate. Every one of those numbers is a career best for the young center.

However, while Valanciunas has increased his efficiency, his offensive game just doesn’t mesh that well with the Raptors’ key playmakers. He’s taking nearly 90% of his shots within ten feet of the hoop, which has made spacing much more difficult for the mid-range loving DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry’s relentless drives.

When Valanciunas gets the ball, he has a tendency to hold onto it for too long, wasting precious seconds off the shot clock. He utilizes a pump-fake far too often and because his opponents have recognized that he won’t try and score from outside much, it simply isn’t that effective. Bringing in Patterson, a high-volume distance shooter, opens up the paint far more for the guards. Compounding this discrepancy is Valanciunas’s complete lack of a passing game. After averaging just 0.7 dimes in his first two seasons, Jonas is only at 0.4 for this season.

Toronto’s offense has been very good overall, but it has declined as the team has struggled of late. Since the All-Star break, the Raptors net rating is -1.3 overall and their offense has fallen from 108.9 points per 100 possessions to 104.2. The biggest factor keeping the Raptors from the elites on offense is their poor passing, and the effect that has on their spacing. Toronto is tied for the fourth most isolation heavy team in the league, with an assist rate of just 54.9, per NBA.com/stats. While the Oklahoma City Thunder can get away with owning a lower rate, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas are not Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Raptors have an even lower assist ratio when DeRozan plays (53.4), and Jonas isn’t far behind (53.8). When Amir Johnson is on the floor, that number is 56.2.

The Raptors have plenty of talented offensive players, but they’re in desperate need of more floor-spacing and, more importantly, passing. As long as Jonas is bringing his game further inside and killing the ball movement, he won’t be a good fit on this offense.

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Because DeMar DeRozan, and Kyle Lowry to a smaller extent, are not lethal long-rage threats, the floor spacing is highly suspect when they play with Valanciunas. Terrence Ross was meant to help fill that void but the young wing has struggled throughout the season. While James Johnson has enjoyed success overall in Toronto, his on court net rating since the All-Star break is just -3.0 with his offensive rating an impressively low 96.0. His game is entirely inside the three point line, compounding the team’s recent struggles on that end. Putting higher volume long-rage shooters like Ross, Patterson and Amir Johnson on the floor allows Toronto’s All-Star guards to operate closer to their maximum efficiency.

Valanciunas’s on court/off court splits back this up; with Jonas on the floor, the Raptors have an effective field goal percentage of 49.7% and a true shooting percentage of 54.1%, via NBA.com/stats. When he leaves, though, those figures jump to 51.5% and 56.1%, respectively. In addition, the pace jumps by an extra possession per game. Both Patterson and Amir Johnson are far better passers, with assist ratios (assists per 100 possessions) of 18.5% and 14.1%, respectively; Valanciunas’s is a truly paltry 3.6%, via NBA.com/stats. Jonas is using possessions efficiently enough when he gets the ball, but his inability to pass out of the post or take more long twos has undoubtedly hindered the positive effects of his game.

Even so, Valanciunas’s biggest issue is clearly on the defensive end. The Raptors have been a bad defensive team this year, and terrible with Jonas on the floor. When he sits, they are perfectly average (103.5 net rating). If we look at ESPN’s RPM, Valancunias ranks 44th among all centers at defense, below such household names as Henry Sims, Cole Aldrich and Alexis Ajinca. The Raptors defense is at its best when rangy defenders like James Johnson (101.5 defensive rating) and Amir Johnson can switch on most pick-and-rolls. Valanciunas simply doesn’t offer that.

While Valanciunas has undoubtedly made improvements on offense, his effect on the team’s success cannot be overlooked. As constructed, the Raptors’ offense is above-average, but their defense is far from championship-level. With Jonas still under his rookie contract, Toronto should seriously consider looking to improve the position from outside.

Given the price Jonas is likely to command, even with his flaws, it’s difficult to make a case for the Raptors to extend Valanciunas this offseason. Often times, players have reputations that outweigh their achievements, and it seems likely Jonas will always be someone who may look like a projectable defensive-minded center that just isn’t very good on that end. Blocks can be very misleading, and Valanciunas is quite good at them. Indeed, his defense around the basket is effective. But his inability to force turnovers arguably hurts the Raptors far more than those blocks help. Compounding this is how Valanciunas’s limited (but efficient) offensive game simply may not be the best fit if the Raptors are committed to the ball-dominant DeRozan. With Masai Ujiri heading the front office, it would be a surprise to see Valanciunas offered a big extension.

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Jake Weiner

Jake Weiner is a Chicagoan and a graduate of Vanderbilt University. He spends much of his free time breaking down and enjoying the NBA. In addition to contributing at BBALLBREAKDOWN, Jake also writes for Today's Fastbreak and co-founded and manages DRosesAndThorns.com. You can follow him on Twitter @JakeWeinerNBA.

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