The saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.”
Raptors fans know that phrase and feeling all too well. Kyle Lowry is usually overlooked when talking about the best point guards in the game. DeMar DeRozan is generally thought of as a top-3 shooting guard, though he’s frequently not mentioned as one of the best players in the game. Dwane Casey isn’t mentioned as one of the better coaches in the game, but you’d be hard pressed to name 10 better than him.
But perhaps nobody on the Raptors bears the brunt of this statement better than Jonas Valanciunas. We frequently talk about the best young big men – namely centers – and the usual suspects come up. The conversation has to begin with DeMarcus Cousins, possibly the best center in the game, depending on how you classify Anthony Davis. The aforementioned Davis might just be the best big man in the entire league right now and his ascension has been charted since he left the University of Kentucky.
New kid on the block Joel Embiid is certainly turning heads and taking the league by storm. Embiid is averaging 19.6 points per game on 46.1% from the field, 34.5% from three and 79.2% from the free throw line. This is all in his rookie year and all while being held to a 28 minute per game average. Sophomore Karl Anthony-Towns is the face of the young Timberwolves squad and entered the discussion for the best center in the game after only one season. Kristaps Porzingis has been so impressive that many are calling for the Knicks to build around him instead of Carmelo Anthony.
You’d think that this is where Jonas Valanciunas would enter the conversation, right? I mean, he might not be the top tier, but he has to be in that second grouping, correct? Nope. Still, many gloss over him. Hassan Whiteside is shown love for being the dominant two-way force that he is. Steven Adams is mentioned as the rebounding and pick-and-roll virtuoso that he is. Similarly, Andre Drummond is given his dues as one of the best rebounders in the game. Nikola Jokic is praised for his passing acumen, even Jahlil Okafor gets some love for being a low post threat.
This doesn’t even include older bigs like Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez, Enes Kanter or Al Horford. We are currently in a renaissance of the ‘Golden Age’ for big men and it seems like Jonas Valanciunas gets lost in the shuffle. I wanted to take a look at why that is and how he stacks up to other bigs. So, I did a little digging.
First, I wanted to make sure that this was a fair fight. While Jonas is talented, he’s not a perimeter oriented big man like Joel Embiid or Karl Anthony-Towns. Similarly, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to compare him to a rim running, pick and roll specialist like a Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan or Steven Adams. Even bigs like Al Horford or Brook Lopez who thrive in the mid range is still an unfair comparison because their games are so different than Valanciunas’. While this only gives me a small sample size to work with, it makes the players I’m comparing him to a lot more level. You can go ahead and take a look at his numbers, then compare them to someone like Embiid, but it seems like the ultimate case of apples to oranges to me.
Next, I gathered last year’s stats per 100 possessions. Per game stats can be very misleading: for example, Jusuf Nurkic only had 8.2 points and 5.5 points per game last year, but he only played 17.1 minutes a game. Per 36 stats are a little bit better – they extrapolate what would happen if the player were given 36 minutes per game. However, it still doesn’t tell the full story. For example, a player like Nurkic or Okafor can have their stats extrapolated and it looks great, but they mostly play with bench units where they’re a focal point. Contrast that to, say, Jonas Valanciunas, who plays a majority of the time with the starters and is the third option after DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (more on this later). So while the two big men are given the same amount of time, their situations are very different.
Stats per 100 possessions do the best job, in my opinion, of leveling the playing field. While it doesn’t guarantee equal playing time, it does give each big man the same amount of touches. I used the following big men in the comparison: Jonas Valanciunas, Philadelphia’s Jahlil Okafor, Miami’s Hassan Whiteside, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic, Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Denver’s Jusuf Nurkic.
A couple of things here: first, Hassan Whiteside is insanely good. Like, dude is otherworldly. Okafor would probably benefit from being on a veteran team where they could hide his defensive deficiencies – a la Pau Gasol and the Spurs – but he’s not producing on the offensive enough like you’d want him to. The same can be said for Jusuf Nurkic, though he’s a decent enough defender. But the biggest takeaway here: Jonas is probably the second best big man here, behind the insanely talented Hassan Whiteside.
So what gives? If Jonas has numbers just as good or even better than other big men that get more recognition than he does, why isn’t he feeling the love?
Coach Casey may be the reason and here’s why: the top 3-man lineup for the Raptors is Lowry-DeRozan-Valanciunas, clocking in at 817 minutes so far this season. The trio is averaging 50.4 points per game and has a plus minus of 3.1 – which is solid, but could be better. However, this is problematic for Jonas because he has only played 1,020 minutes this season, meaning that 80.09% of his minutes have come when he’s clearly the third option on the court.
This is a big problem because a player like Jonas needs to have the ball dumped in the post to him quite often so he can build some sort of flow to his game. However, that cannot happen when he’s the tertiary option behind DeRozan and Lowry. So what can be done?
The simple solution is for Casey to stagger his minutes so that he sees more time with the bench unit of Patrick Patterson, Norman Powell, Terrance Ross and Cory Joseph – all three of whom are shooting 36% or better from three. That’s big, because when they play with a big man – like Valanciunas for example – who backs opponents down in the post and draws the attention of the opposing team, it opens up shots for everyone else. Additionally, Lucas Nogueira is progressing as a pick and roll option, as well as a rim defender – both skills that fits with the playing style of Lowry and DeRozan. Splitting the trio of DeRozan, Lowry and Valanciunas up wouldn’t be for the majority of the game – but it would have to be enough for everyone to prosper and for Big V to get the touches he needs.
Valanciunas deserves more recognition nationally, but he’s going to have to earn it. Centers are getting more and more skilled by the draft class it seems, and Valanciunas is looking like a dinosaur rather than fitting in with the landscape. Maybe focusing more on him via pairing him with a bench unit could do something to help. Valanciunas could feast on backup bigs and see his scoring average and efficiency rise because of it. Or maybe he just needs a few more touches and plays called for him throughout the course of the game.
Whatever it is, the Raptors and Jonas need to find a way to help him standout, instead of fading to the background.
Written by Joshua Chapman
Photo by Tristan Forbes
Edited by Drew Ebanks