Toronto Raptors: Jonas Valanciunas continues to excel


With every passing game, Jonas Valanciunas is becoming increasingly important to the Toronto Raptors and their quest for a first appearance in the NBA Finals.

At the end of December, we suggested Jonas Valanciunas was underrated and underappreciated. A month later, this no longer appears to be the case for the Toronto Raptors centre.

Valanciunas was even better in January, as he averaged 13.1 points, 9.9 boards and just under two assists in 15 games. He is on a run of four consecutive double-doubles (equaling his career-high) and finished the month with nine overall.

In fact, the 25-year old now leads the Raptors with 16 double-doubles on the season. And he continues to rank second on the team in Player Efficiency Rating.

However, it’s Valanciunas’ efforts of defence specifically, where he has really turned it on. Consider an article from Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun.

Ganter writes that the Lithuanian native had the worst defensive rating on the roster during October and November. To be fair, he only played two of a possible six games in October, but was terrible in November, with opponents scoring 113.7 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor.

Ganter went on to note Valanciunas improved considerably in December, but he was still only ninth among all regulars, with a defensive rating of 103.1. However, January saw him take his defensive game to an even higher level.

The affable big man finished the month with the second best defensive rating among all team regulars at 100.1, just behind C.J. Miles at 100.0. And that was likely only because Miles missed Tuesday’s 109-104 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, with a sore knee. (Valanciunas entered Tuesday’s contest with a team-leading 99.9 defensive rating among all regulars in January.)

Valanciunas has often been the most polarizing player on the Toronto Raptors. For every person who suggests coach Dwane Casey doesn’t know how to use him effectively, there is someone who counters that he just isn’t consistent enough.

You can argue that both claims have merit. Certainly, there has never been any dispute about the talent of the 2011 fifth overall draft pick.

However, whichever camp you put yourself in, we can all agree this season has been the most efficiently productive yet for Valanciunas. He is essentially doing more with less.

The sixth-year man is well on course for the lowest average playing time of his career, with 21.4 minutes per contest. Entering this season his previous low was 23.9 minutes per game and that was during his rookie campaign in 2012/13.

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Yes, Valanciunas is averaging 11.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, which would only rank fourth and fifth respectively, among his six seasons in the NBA. But look at his averages per 36 minutes and you really get an understanding of how well he is performing.

The two-time FIBA Young Player of the Year has averaged 19.8 points and 14.2 boards per 36 minutes, which are both career highs. His previous highs per 36 minutes were 17.8 points (2015/16) and 13.2 rebounds (2016/17).

Valanciunas has been money at the free-throw line as well, with him on course for a career-best .858 shooting percentage. (His previous high was .811, which he established last season.) Heck, he’s even added a three-point game to his arsenal, nailing 11 of 26 attempts from downtown. (Entering this season, he was 1-for-4 on his career.)

In a season where the Toronto Raptors are playing as good as ever, Valanciunas is arguably the best example of this, as he makes himself an invaluable member of the roster. If he can continue his current form into the playoffs — where we’ve previously seen plenty of evidence he can step up when the intensity is raised — it is quite conceivable to imagine the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance.

Next: Norman Powell's struggles

Where do you rank Valanciunas in terms of importance to the Toronto Raptors? Do you predict his form in January will continue for the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.