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Jonas Valanciunas’ Dominant Play in Las Vegas Wasn’t a Mirage

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COMMENTARY | The past few summers have shown that strong play in the Las Vegas Summer League is just another mirage and trick the desert plays on your mind. You only need to look at the 20 points per game Adam Morrison averaged last summer or the fact Josh Selby shot nearly 60% from beyond the arc to know that what players do in Vegas normally stays in Vegas and rarely translate to actual NBA games.

Heck, Tobias Harris averaged 20.8 points last summer in Vegas and the Milwaukee Bucks threw him away at the trade deadline.

However, with what Jonas Valanciunas did this past week, there's reason to believe it's sustainable and transferable to meaningful NBA games next season. Toronto's talented big man averaged 18.8 points while shooting 56.1% from the field. He scored on a dizzying array of nasty dunks, power moves and he even showed a nice shooting touch from just outside the paint.

"It's just a testament to his hard work," Quincy Acy raved to SB Nation. "We worked out together before practice a lot our rookie year. That was fun, too, to see him work hard and he's still out there getting big minutes. It just says a lot about him as a person and how passionate he is about the game and getting better."

It's tempting to chalk his stats and impressive YouTube clips up to Valanciunas just bullying around players much smaller than him. Granted, the 15 pounds of muscle he has put on since the end of the season gives him at an unfair advantage here in summer league, but he also showed improved footwork in the post and that he was capable of the team throwing the ball into him in the post and running the offense through him.

"We weren't looking for him to be a physical, dominating type guy," Dwane Casey explained to Sports Illustrated. "We wanted him to pick out his spots, to read the post defenses, to make good decisions with the pass, and that's what he's doing. We wanted him to really gauge the speed of the game because we don't have Roy Hibbert here, or Brook Lopez, and some of the big-time centers in our league. … He's done a heck of a job of making decisions with the ball, making the right reads and passes. That was what we intended for him to get out of the summer league, and that's what he's done."

But will this translate to the NBA? It remains to be seen. Besides battling against larger competition next season, he will also be battling his teammates for more touches. This past week Valanciunas got all the touches he could handle but it remains to be seen if that will be the case when he's sharing the court with Kyle Lowry (9.2 field goal attempts per game), Rudy Gay (16.7) and DeMar DeRozan (15.01).

Last season Valanciunas only averaged 5.9 field goal attempts per game.

"He's going to get more touches now in this coming season," Casey admitted to Sports Illustrated. "As he gets older and can handle the responsibility of having the ball go through him, it's going to be great. The good thing now is, it's going to take the pressure off Rudy (Gay) and DeMar (DeRozan). When he's got the ball in the post, they can space out the weak side, they can cut, they can attack the rim. He can quarterback out of that spot too. It's really going to take a lot of pressure off of those guys on the weak side."

Last season Valanciunas saw his touches improve from 3.8 in December to 7.4 in April, but it's clear that talented big man needs even more touches next season. It will be interesting to see what kind of schemes and plays Casey creates in order to achieve that goal.

Talk is cheap - just like stats in Las Vegas during summer league - so it will be up to Valanciunas to prove his growth in Las Vegas wasn't a mirage. But, if I were a betting man, I wouldn't bet against Valanciunas as he looks poised to take a big leap forward next season.

Ryan McNeill lives in Toronto and has been covering the Toronto Raptors with media passes since the 2007-08 season. You can follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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