Jonas Valanciunas needs to expand his game in order to make the leap to All-Star status.

I find myself going back and forth on my feelings towards Jonas Valanciunas.

The optimist likes Valanciunas as a future star in the making that’s already performing at a strong rate. He’s a great finisher around the basket, he’s a wide body that demands a presence, he can block shots, he rebounds well and he stays healthy.

Those are all things to like about Valanciunas.

The pessimist sees Valanciunas as an immobile presence who’s too bumbling for his own good. He’s not a good passer, he’s not quick, he can’t (or is too afraid to) shoot from anywhere outside the paint, and he lacks both the instincts and the foot speed to play reliable defense at the center position.

Those are all things to dislike about Valanciunas.

I’ve struggled to find an in-between, some middle ground to stand on, and that’s bothered me for quite some time. I hate that there’s a polarizing dichotomy with assessing Valanciunas that strips away any hint of nuiance from the discussion.

Until now. There’s a missing topic that’s central to the conversation: Valanciunas’s biggest fault is that his game is not flexible.

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Here’s what I mean by a lack of flexibility. Players like Draymond Green or Boris Diaw – those guys are flexible. You put them in any lineup and they can adapt. They have enough skills and enough smarts to become whatever the team needs from them. And while they’re not masters at any one aspect of the game, their all-around excellence makes them highly useful.

Valanciunas is inflexible. He’s only effective on offense if he’s given the ball. He can grab the occasional board and he’s big enough to play the part of a pick-and-roll big, but for the most part, Valanciunas does most of his damage in the post. Turn, pump-fake, pump-fake, back-down, two steps, sweeping right hook, profit. He needs the ball to do that. 

Defensively, Valanciunas can only play one style, one where he’s close to the basket and actively watching the play. That helps mitigate his lack of quickness. Put him in the paint and he’ll block shots and grab rebounds. But put him in a pick-and-roll, force him to go small and come to the perimeter, and he looks every bit like Bambi learning to walk.

The inflexibility has led Raptors head coach Dwane Casey to repeatedly sit Valanciunas during key stretches. And while it drives Raptors fans nuts, Casey speaks the truth about his center:

A lot of it is a function of both – improving defensively, and I think he’s done that this summer, and also matchups. At the end of games you’ve got guys with speed that are quicker and I told him this summer, ‘Once you demonstrate that you can get down and guard those 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8 small centres you’re going to be out there all day.

h/t – Josh Lewenberg, TSN

All the things in-between, however, are lacking. His passing? Substandard. His shooting? Hesitant and inconsistent. His natural instinct for the game? Below average. Unless he’s asked to play a narrow role within strict confines, Valanciunas generally looks lost. He’ll paint inside the lines, which is good, but he can’t produce a masterpiece.

Valanciunas, for all intents and purposes, is a specialist. That explains why he plays limited minutes, why he only plays against certain lineups, and why his numbers always look so good. Like any specialist, Valanciunas’s workload is carefully managed.

There’s also nothing wrong with being a specialist. No one faults Kyle Korver for not developing a post-game, or chastises DeAndre Jordan an inability to shoot. Specialists are very useful, and Valanciunas is good at the things he specializes in. Opponents shot just 46.5 percent when Valanciunas was at the basket. He averaged the most points per post-up last season and as a whole, Valanciunas ranked in the 95th percentile in scoring efficiency.

Those are all positives, and when properly managed, Valanciunas is a problem for other teams, not a stubborn headache for the Raptors. But there’s two things wrong with the specialist approach.

One, specialists are only truly impactful if they’re experts at their craft, a level Valanciunas has yet to reach. Specialists leverage their craft into something productive at the team level. Korver’s shooting is deadly enough to cause switches and inspire widespread panic when he’s on the move. Jordan’s athleticism single-handedly ensures defensive rebounding and his thunderous rolls to the basket sucks in defenders to free up shooters. Valanciunas fails to impact the game on a global level.

Two, the Raptors, both as a team and as a fanbase, want Valanciunas to become a superstar. That’s why he got the big money (although the contract is still fair even if he doesn’t develop) and quite frankly, he represents the Raptors’ best chance at an All-Star. They didn’t spend the fifth overall pick on a specialist.

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There’s another problem with the specialist approach: NBA basketball is moving away from from what Valanciunas does best.

In the age of analytics, trains of thought change course according to an ever-shifting bedrock of quantifiable data. Right now, the earth is crumbling beneath the league’s tallest towers.

Two years ago, with the advent of SportVU data, rim-protection was all the rage. Everyone wanted to be like Roy Hibbert and the Indiana Pacers. ICE defense became the trump card against the NBA’s increasingly pick-and-roll heavy offenses, and central to that scheme was a rim protector like Hibbert. Get a big body, station him in the paint, and use the principle of verticality. Undercut the offense by taking away the paint. 

Today, the league is obsessed with geometry, thus we crowned the Golden State Warriors – the masters of pace and space. The natural counter to ICE was to employ more shooting, and coupled with bundles of data that outlined the effectiveness of certain spots on the floor (corners), the league broke ICE with shooting. The mighty Pacers’ great downfall was LeBron James and Shane Battier forcing Hibbert to vacate his godly throne. The Warriors then took that strategy to the extreme and beat James himself. 

Trends change so quickly that yesterday’s darlings are today’s copycats. The Pacers eventually shipped off Hibbert for nothing and forced an All-NBA wing in Paul George to play the four. Who knows what the Warriors will do in two year’s time.

The cutback for the Raptors, however, is that the game is moving away from Valanciunas’s skillset. Casey made no small deal of Valanciunas learning to play the verticality game, a la Hibbert, and now he’s too slow to keep pace with Casey’s blitzing scheme, which philosophically mirrors the Warriors’s top-ranked defense. Valanciunas was also told to become a better post-up player. Now, with passing, pace, and shooting reigning supreme, there’s no patience left for Valanciunas’s post game.

Maybe the next break favors Valanciunas’s skillset. As Casey likes to say, height is still important as long as the rim is 10 feet. And while stretching the floor along a horizontal plane is the current focus, perhaps the next advancement takes to the skies, where innovative schemes will make easy pickings off trees like Valanciunas.

But that’s not where the game is currently, which has turned Valanciunas the specialist into something else entirely. In light of the league’s new priorities, it’s more about what Valanciunas can’t do, rather than what he can do, because everyone does what he can’t, and no one does what he does.

Adapt or Die: It’s on Valanciunas to become more flexible.

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There’s something to be said for the role of coaching and management. After all, Valanciunas didn’t end up here on his own accord.

Hindsight is 20/20, but more valuable still is the clairvoyant visionary who stands on the brink of the future while looking down upon his contemporaries. We’ll remember the Tom Thibodeau’s and the Mike D’Antoni’s of the world, not because of their success, but for their influence on the game. Both men saw the future, were the first to act, and their strategies worked. And while neither coach guided their team to a title (Thibodeau won with the Celtics as an assistant), they changed the way the game is played.

Basketball functions in accordance to the same rules as any other business. Teams can either succeed through invention, innovation, or through sheer power. Better yet is to mix together all three.

Thibodeau and D’Antoni were inventors that created something tremendous, but the trouble with that is there’s no rules against stealing, which makes innovation much cheaper and more available. The Warriors and the Pacers – those teams were built upon innovation – and former Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry, who served under D’Antoni for a half-decade, made sure to give his old boss a hat tip. As for power, that resides with whichever team has most talent – as Mike Brown proved, you don’t need a lot of innovation or invention to win with James.

The Raptors have certainly been successful, but they’re powerless followers, by in large, which puts them in the same boat as most teams in the league. They have a good base of talent, they dutifully adapt, and they have a general manager who consistently makes sound business decisions. That’s enough to float them to where they are: a good team in the East that’s primed to stay above .500 for quite some time.

To take the next step, the Raptors need a breakthrough, and it was thought that Valanciunas would lead the charge.

But what innovative or inventive wisdom has management and coaching impacted upon Valanciunas? Every step of the way, the Raptors have taught Valanciunas to react. He was first billed as a Joakim Noah-type, an energetic pest that would anchor a defense. But then he was asked to become Roy Hibbert, to work on his verticality and to trade quickness for added bulk. This summer, the directive changed once more, and Valanciunas was tasked with improving his jumper and improving his mobility. Every step of the way, the Raptors tried to train Valanciunas’s clumsy feet to follow the latest trends, which in-turn left them a step behind.

Perhaps that’s Valanciunas’s fault. After all, if he were good enough, the Raptors would surely stop messing with him and just focus on his strengths. But he has yet to show that, so for him, the game is adapt or die until he proves otherwise.

But for the Raptors’ coaching and management staff, well, they haven’t exactly done him any favors.

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3 thoughts on “Adapt or Die: The next step for Jonas Valanciunas is flexibility

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