The NBA, A-through-Z: (Jonas) Valanciunas

Kelly Dwyer
August 27, 2013

The free agents have just about all been signed up. The NBA is down to a series of Instagram photos from moving yachts and crossed fingers from worried teams hoping their players stay safe in the summer off. There’s nothing going on, save for that clock on the wall that is ticking down to the 2013-14 season.

And it’s moving SO SLOWLY.

This is why we’ve decided to pick 26 things we’re looking forward to in 2013-14. Or, at the very least, 26 things that intrigue us as we wait out an offseason that feels like it has thousands of miles left to cross before we can get to Halloween and opening week. Because there are 26 letters in the alphabet – you guessed, NBA A-through-Z.

We continue with (Jonas) Valanciunas.

In spite of the well-earned positivity emanating from the divorce from Bryan Colangelo and hiring of 2012-13 NBA Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri as new general manager, there have been plenty of moments for the self-loathing Toronto Raptors fans to dive into the typical offseason crying jag.

First there was the admission by $17.8 million-priced small forward Rudy Gay that his long range shooting woes may have been partially caused by his refusal to wear prescription-lens goggles because they made him feel uncomfortable. Gay went on to admit that he refused to wear glasses on court (too dorky, I guess), or contact lenses because he saw some people snort drugs growing up. Which would be understandable if it weren’t for the millions of people, this author included, that saw plenty of people snort plenty of drugs growing up but still decided to wear contacts as soon as they became available. My jump shot improved, by the way.

Then there was the free agency period sit out. Other teams threw cash after good, some threw cash after bad, but to some Raptors fans it may have felt like the team merely threw its offseason away. The team dealt its former hoped-for franchise star in Andrea Bargnani and waived Linas Kleiza, but because the Colangelo front office saddled Toronto with a potential luxury tax bill for a team that was no guarantee to sniff the playoffs, the roster had to be more or less set sooner rather than later.

Then Allen Iverson retires, and Raptor fans have to think back to their closest call – watching as AI’s Philadelphia 76ers over the Raps in Game 7 of the 2001 Eastern Conference semifinals.

Then Tracy McGrady retires, and Raptor fans have a much more direct way of playing “what if?” while thinking back to the three seasons McGrady spent with the team that drafted him in 1997.

Then we have Dave Feschuk at the Toronto Star to rub it in a little more:

Raptors management wishes it could use the same excuse, but nobody in Toronto can say the Raptors haven’t been blessed with the presence of excellence. [then-Knicks coach Jeff] Van Gundy, who coached the New York Knicks against the Carter-McGrady Raptors in a best-of-five playoff series in 2000, said game-planning against that Toronto team was problematic. Though the Knicks won the series in a three-game sweep, Van Gundy pointed out that all three games were toss-ups — “In Game 3, Larry Johnson banked in that three,” Van Gundy remembered. While the defence-focused Knicks, as a rule, rarely double-teamed opponents, “we had to double Carter.” And as for McGrady — he racked up 25 points and 10 rebounds in his playoff debut, but Van Gundy recalled best how New York’s star guard, Allan Houston, “had a tough time getting his shot off” against the then-20-year-old’s long defence.

“It does go by fast,” Van Gundy said, speaking of McGrady’s coming and going from the basketball’s biggest stage. “You look back on it, McGrady leaves, and it’s like, ‘Did Vince Carter really get traded for Alonzo Mourning with a bad kidney?’ You’re sitting there saying, really? You look at Toronto and it’s a great, great basketball town. ... They could have had some championship teams up there if they’d stayed together.”

Great. Just great. Thanks, guys.

This is August prattle, though. What counts from here on out is the establishment of a sound GM in Ujiri, a chance for coach Dwane Casey to live up to the promise he came with upon signing with the Raptors in 2011, and for the team to attempt a slow rebuild as it tries to distance itself from the players Colangelo both acquired and handed huge contracts to.

Perhaps the only member of the set of Colangelo draft picks that was actually worth handing a massive contract to, Jonas Valanciunas, is about to enter his second season with the team, working on a rookie deal that still has at least three more seasons on it. Valanciunas certainly got his reps in an injury-plagued rookie year, starting 57 of the 62 games he played in while working nearly 24 minutes a contest. That’s sound work for a rookie big man, most of whom are bogged down by foul trouble and conditioning issues in their initial NBA turn.

Valanciunas had no such foul issues (just 4.6 per 36 minutes), and yet he still showed very promising signs as both a feet-movin’ defender and finisher around the rim. It’s true that Jonas did not rebound as well as we’d expect, especially on the offensive end, but the mere fact that Casey gave the young man as much as he could handle in his first year should pay huge dividends down the road. Compare Jonas’ number of starts with Detroit’s Andre Drummond (57 to 10) last year, and you have the difference between a well-versed starter and someone who is going to have to learn how to pace things for four quarters.

That’s all we have, really, because the hoped-for internal development will be all the Raptors can rely on in 2013-14 as Ujiri attempts to find takers for parts of this massive payroll. Raptor fans can by now by heart relay the 18-18 record the team put together after the Gay trade, and it’s true that a .500 record stretched out over an entire season would have been enough to make the eighth seed of the Eastern side of the playoffs last year, but $70 million payrolls shouldn’t just be earning eighth seeds, and the Eastern playoff bracket has gotten stronger in the offseason.

This is why an improved Gay, a healthy Kyle Lowry, a hopefully improving DeMar DeRozan, and a confident (even in the final year of his contract) Dwane Casey all have to come through in spades.

Jonas Valanciunas, a year after being thrown to the wolves at age 20, should be a little ahead of the pack. You don’t have to worry about him, Toronto.