Since being drafted 5th overall back in 2011, Raptors Center Jonas Valanciunas has improved his game every year and shows no signs of slowing down. By letting fan favourite Bismack Biyombo walk at the opening of free agency, it is clear that Raptors’ management wish to keep Jonas in their future plans going forward. The big question is: was this the right decision or should the Raptors have kept Biyombo and traded Jonas for a forward?
Dwane Casey had a lot of versatility and depth at Center last season, having two reliable big men to crash the boards and defend the paint. When Jonas missed significant time with a fractured hand, Biyombo stepped up as a starter and set career highs in rebounds. Biyombo’s ability to block/alter shots became key to the Raptors’ defense and also energized the home crowd. However, there was one SLIGHTLY large aspect that Biyombo was missing in his game: his ability to score. Outside of open drunks, Biyombo was not a threat in the team’s offence. His below 63% shooting from the free throw line and inability to make quick decisions with the ball also proved to be a liability.
Biyombo officially left the Raptors at the beginning of July, signing with the Orlando Magic on a 4 year, $72 million contract. Although his presence and energy will surely be missed, Masai Ujiri believed that he was not worth that large of a contract. Not to mention Jonas will be in the first year of a 4 year, $64 million contract extension that he signed last summer. To compensate for the loss of Biyombo, Masai used the two first round picks on big men Jakob Poltl and Pascal Siakam. However, Jonas is still THE GUY at the Center position.
When Jonas was drafted back in 2011, the Raptors were at the beginning of a re-building phase after the departure of Chris Bosh. After David Stern called his name on draft night, social media blew up with pure negative comments. “WHO IS THIS GUY? WHY DID THE RAPTORS NOT DRAFT BRANDON KNIGHT? DID TORONTO JUST SELECT ANOTHER SOFT EUROPEAN BIG MAN?”. Problem is (and is the case with a lot of ignorant sports fans), people did not do their research! Jonas was the best rising star in Europe, winning 3 FIBA Gold Medals, was named the FIBA Young Player of the Year, and led his club to the Lithuanian League Championship. If that wasn’t enough to convince NBA fans he was legit, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich was hoping to trade up in the draft to get him.
Jonas officially joined the Raptors prior to the 2012-2013 season. After watching him play just a few games, it was clear that Jonas was nearly the exact opposite type of player as teammate Andrea Bargnani. Jonas was deemed a much tougher player, with his ability to post up and grab rebounds. His “never back down” attitude against intimidating NBA veterans was also a significant quality to have for a young player. Jonas did not let other big men bully him, never hesitated to throw an extra elbow, and even got in opposing players faces when necessary. Even though the Raptors still finished with a losing record that season, the development of Jonas gave Raptor fans hope for the future.
The 2015-2016 season was the most successful of Jonas’ 4 year NBA career. Not only did the Raptors reach a milestone in both regular season and playoff wins, Jonas averaged career highs in points, rebounds, and blocks. It is also worth noting that Dwane Casey elected to continue feeding Jonas in second halves and even let him finish games (something that Casey elected not to do before and received much criticism from fans). While the all-star duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan carried the Raptors for much of the regular season, it was Jonas who stepped up come playoff time. Lowry and DeRozan both had their struggles in the first round vs. Indiana. However, it was the big play of Jonas that kept Toronto alive in the series. In the first game of the playoffs, Jonas finished with a career high 19 rebounds and followed up the next game with a 23 points, 15 rebounds effort. The Raptors went on to win their first 7 game series in franchise history. The second series vs. the Miami Heat saw Jonas get off to another hot start. However, a sprained right ankle forced Jonas to miss the next 8 games and the Raptors were eventually eliminated in 6 games to the Champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
Now the Raptors will have to continue getting better if they wish to make it out of the Eastern Conference. The Cleveland Cavaliers are still the powerhouse favourites in the East and teams like Chicago, Boston, and New York have all boosted their rosters. The play of Jonas is going to be the biggest X-Factor heading into the season. While his ability to grab rebounds and score in the paint shouldn’t be a problem, Jonas is going to have to work on his conditioning this off-season. The league is getting smaller and faster every year and few legitimate centers still exist in this league (hmmm…Jonas, Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan?). If Jonas can slim down and run the floor more efficiently, it would be beneficial to Dwane Casey’s offence. Think about it, most of Biyombo’s points last season came on his ability to cut to the net for open lobs or dump offs. If Jonas could get those easy looks combined with his ability to score, he could make for a very dangerous scoring threat. Improving his jump shot will also be a necessity, as opposing defenders who watch game film may stop falling for his pump fakes less than 10 feet from the rim.
Despite the trade rumours that constantly flow throughout the media all day every day, it appears Jonas is here to stay. The Raptors are not the same without him and need the Lithuanian Center to take the next step this upcoming season. #WeTheNorth, let’s go JV!