Has Toronto found their superstar? (Image: CBS Sports)
Our new feature highlights the NBA's up and coming players age 25 and under. We will breakdown their strengths, weaknesses and keys to success.
With the 5th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, the Toronto Raptors select...Jonas Valanciunas from Lithuania.
Prior to the 2013-2014 NBA season, Jonas Valanciunas was definitely on the short list of players poised to breakthrough and experience incredible success. After a promising rookie season that saw him make incredible strides by year's end, everyone was buzzing about the young center's upside. Posssesing a wide array of raw talent on both ends of the floor, Valanciunas had an amazing Summer League performance, earning MVP honors in Las Vegas.
At only 21 years old, Valanciunas, along with Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Terrence Ross, headline a young Raptors team that surprisingly leads the Atlantic Division and is scheduled to return to the postseason for the first time since the Chris Bosh era. After a slower start than expected, Jonas is performing extremely well as a steady inside presence and looks to star in the second half of the season as Toronto solidifies themselves as a playoff contender.
Unlike most European big men, Valanciunas loves to bang in the paint and plays very effectively with his back to the basket. A "true" center, he invites contact and can score with a variety of hook shots, up and unders, and spin moves. After drawing contact, Jonas makes his opponents pay by converting foul line shots at an impressive 77%.
Valanciunas's excellent footwork and nimble, yet powerful, body allows him to get by slower opponents and take them off the dribble in certain isolation situations. In addition, his improving mid-range jumper (from around 15-18 feet) keeps defenders honest who play off of him on the perimeter.
On defense, Valanciunas moves his feet fairly well and is able to use great size and positioning to capture tough rebounds in the paint. He moves oppenents from their spots when boxing out and frequently sneaks in for offensive putbacks. His rebouding has increased to almost 9 per game (up from 6 last year) and the figure should definitely increase with more playing time.
One of Jonas's main drawbacks is his lack of intensity at times. Since he entered the NBA last season, Valanciunas has been plagued by inconsistent efforts in terms of motor, which possibly stems from his calm nature on the court at times. Not to be confused with a lack of toughness, the second-year big's aggression needs a boost on both ends of the floor.
Often times, Valanciunas does not challenge shots on defense well enough (averages under a block a game). These improvements will come with maturity and a commitment to bringing an unrivaled effort every night.
Also, while a very good offensive player, the inclusion of a few more go-to moves down low will help him become a more efficient contributor. If he raises his shooting to around 55%, from 50%, his scoring average will increase and the Raptors could have a more effective inside-out combination between perimeter players like Lowry and DeRozan.
Lastly, Valanciunas needs to work on interior passing, especially while double teamed. Usually, Jonas prioritizes overpowering his matchup and scoring over them, instead of dishing out to shooters when challenged by multiple defenders. As he gets more comfortable with the added attention from teams, his passing should come a lot more naturally.
Keys to Success:
Jonas Valanciunas is one of the more intriguing young pivot men in the NBA. He is learning and growing on a young squad and is projected to harness his immense talent without many restrictions. Generally, big men entering the league are given a four-year window (slightly longer for international big men adjusting to the NBA lifestyle, language barrier and style of play) in order to determine which career path they are most likely to take: high-level All-Star/Superstar, role player, quality backup, fringe player, etc. In year two, Valanciunas has already shown enough potential on both ends of the floor to warrrant much excitement regarding his potential as a perennial All-Star.
His improvement on the defensive end is anticipated and his ascension on the offensive end projects to continue at very fast rate. If he keeps working on his midrange jumper, adds more strength (to his already impressive frame), and develops more of an intensity on both ends of the court, his ceiling is unlimited. Since Bosh departed for Miami, the Raptors have been starving for an All-Star big man and face of the franchise. Valanciunas's unique combinaton of skill and work ethic both suggest the Lithuanian sensation will eventually become the "King" of the Queen City.