Following a summer spent trying to address a clear short-term objective—improving the roster so that it might finally win a playoff series—Raptors GM Masai Ujiri zoomed out to the long-term for his most expensive signing of the off-season.
The Raptors announced the signing of Jonas Valanciunas to a rookie contract extension Thursday, with ESPN.com and Yahoo Sports reporting that the 23-year-old center will receive a four-year deal worth $64 million. The extension, which kicks in for the 2016–17 season and includes a player option for the 2019–20 season, currently makes Valanciunas the team’s highest-paid player for next season, pending Ujiri’s work next summer.
“Jonas’s contributions continue to improve with each season and we view him as a significant part of what we are building in Toronto,” Ujiri said in a statement.
Valanciunas, a 2011 lottery pick who waited one year before entering the NBA in 2012–13, joins 2012 lottery picks Anthony Davis (5 years, $145 million) and Damian Lillard (5 years, $120 million) by signing an early extension. He will make $4.7 million in the final year of his rookie contract this season.
A full-time starter throughout his three-year career, Valanciunas averaged a career-high 12 points and a team-leading 8.7 rebounds last season. Progress has come steadily, rather than in quantum leaps, for one of the NBA’s most promising young big men, in part because Toronto has had to balance his development with a desire to win now. For example, Valanciunas played a modest 26.2 minutes per game as Toronto advanced to the playoffs last year for the second straight season, while fellow 2011 first-round pick Nikola Vucevic enjoyed 34.2 minutes per game for the lottery-dwelling Orlando Magic and 2012 lottery pick Andre Drummond has averaged 30-plus minutes in each of the last two seasons for Detroit Pistons teams that went nowhere fast.
There are still plenty of signs of promise despite that tighter leash. Valanciunas’s big, physical frame and crafty, polished low-post game combine to give him an All-Star ceiling. Once he has fully matured, and is unleashed by his coaching staff, it’s easy to envision Valanciunas as an 18/12 producer who is capable of being a top-two scoring option on a competitive team. Already, Valanciunas ranks among the league leaders in shooting efficiency and rebounding productivity, and his strong 20.6 Player Efficiency Rating and 8.2 Win Shares last season are a product of his strong per-minute productivity and durability. Valanciunas has missed just three games combined over the last two seasons, and he seems poised for a larger role next season following the departure of Amir Johnson to Boston in free agency.
Young bigs typically struggle in the NBA, especially on defense, and Valanciunas is no exception. Last year, Toronto took a major step back defensively, falling from No. 9 in 2013–14 to No. 23. Valanciunas was part of the problem: his 105.6 defensive rating was the worst among Toronto’s rotation big men, and his 1.03 Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranked 34th among centers league-wide. For a man his size, Valanciunas can look like a ballet dancer when he goes through a series of fakes in search of a basket in isolation. The grace disappears when he is asked to cover ground defensively, and he often looks like he has two left feet. He might make for an imposing, paint-filling figure, but Valanciunas has not yet proven to be a certified rim-protecting presence.
Because Valanciunas remains in the “very encouraging, not yet elite” category, an early extension was no guarantee. Players and teams often disagree on the value of potential, and the Raptors surely would have liked, in an ideal world, to conduct this negotiation with the benefit of seeing how well Valanciunas handles greater responsibilities next season.
That opportunity, it’s important to note, would almost certainly have proven costly. If no extension had been reached, Valanciunas would have proceeded toward restricted free agency in a $93 million cap system. For comparison’s sake, under a $70 million cap this summer, the Thunder were forced to match a four-year, $70 million maximum offer sheet to retain Enes Kanter, who was selected two picks before Valanciunas in ‘11. Meanwhile, Tristan Thompson, the player selected between Kanter and Valanciunas, is also reportedly seeking a max extension worth $90-plus million this summer. Barring injury, there’s little question Valanciunas would be been in line for a max-type offer next July given the increased spending power available to teams and the league’s constant demand for talented centers.
The final terms here, then, look favorable for the Raptors. Valanciunas’s average annual salary of $16 million is similar to Milwaukee’s signing of Greg Monroe (three years, $50 million) and, when judged as a percentage of the cap when they were signed, is very similar to the extensions given to Vucevic (four years, $53 million last fall) and Utah’s Derrick Favors (four years, $49 million in ‘13).
It’s hard to fault anyone for signing a life-changing, fully-guaranteed contract of this size, especially given how many star players have gone down with significant injuries over the last two years, but Valanciunas really should have driven a harder bargain or considered playing out next season. The ink isn’t dry yet and he already looks cheap in comparison to Kanter and (eventually) Thompson. That feeling will only increase once the rain-making picks up next summer.
To make matters worse, Valanciunas’s importance to the Raptors’ big picture isn’t likely to diminish. Although Toronto has two under-30 guards in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, both represent long-term question marks: Lowry is back needing to prove that he’s an elite point guard at his position after falling off a cliff down the stretch last season, and DeRozan can become a free agent next summer when teams will likely line up to spend their new dollars to overpay for his inefficient volume scoring and mediocre all-around game. A player with Valanciunas’s profile is arguably harder to find than either Lowry or DeRozan, and the Raptors’ five-year outlook would go from “somewhat hazy” to “blahhhhh” really quickly if Valanciunas was suddenly removed from the picture.
Put simply, Valanciunas seemed to enjoy more leverage than he ultimately wielded, and a breakout campaign in 2015–16 would instantly turn him into a strong value. Absent any obvious red flags—assuming that Valanciunas’s 2014 DUI arrest was an anomaly—and with good reason to expect further blossoming, Ujiri should leave the negotiating table as a very happy man.