Why Raptors big man Jonas Valanciunas deserves Las Vegas Summer League MVP
LAS VEGAS -- Opposing big men just can't seem to help themselves, no matter how many times their coaches scream the simple two-word instruction.
When 21-year-old Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas wheels to face the basket, he invariably keeps the ball up by his ear and in constant motion. He fakes, and fakes, and then bends and really fakes, and eventually post defenders forget their instructions -- very simple instructions, mind you -- and leave their feet.
"Stay down!" Over and over again, those words have rung out from summer-league sidelines. Over and over again, the words have eventually gone unheeded, as Valanciunas' fakes prove to be too magnetic. "Stay down!" Too late, another defender is in the air and Valanciunas is already scooting past him, heading straight for the rim.
Every time the 7-foot Valanciunas, the fifth pick in 2011, has taken the court this week in Las Vegas, he's done a handful of things to make the basketball traditionalist chuckle out loud. The pump fakes are breathtaking, but they have been only one of his many attributes on display. Valanciunas has shown the ability to make jump hooks with both hands, and the footwork necessary to set them up. The touch on his passes and the calm with which he handles double teams are rarely seen in a player with his size and strength. Defensively, he's maintained a high effort level and diligently committed to finding a body to box to maximize his rebounding opportunities. He's altered shots and shadowed pick-and-roll ball-handlers. And, it goes without saying, he's outmuscled and overpowered virtually everyone.
Put simply, Valanciunas is the best player in this year's summer league, and his development is progressing so well that Raptors coach Dwane Casey didn't hesitate or hedge when asked to gauge his center's ceiling.
"I see an All-Star in the making," Casey told SI.com on Thursday. "He's not there yet. ... I think you're going to see that [recognition] in the future. As he grows as a player, we'll grow as a team."
That prediction was delivered immediately after Valanciunas finished with15 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two blocks in Toronto's 95-78 win over Denver. Valanciunas took only seven shots but he was the game's central force, as he has been all week. Through Thursday, Valanciunas ranked third in Las Vegas in scoring (18.8 points) and fifth in rebounding (10.0) while shooting 56.1 percent from the field.
Summer league has never been known for the strength of its big-man crop, and Valanciunas' physical presence has required regular double-teaming from defenses and produced "man among boys" assessments from observers. On back-to-back plays against the Nuggets, he simply overpowered everyone in the paint to throw down one-handed dunks. The sequence drew both gasps and laughs because he made it look so easy.
Earlier this week, one heckler became so enamored with Valanciunas' play that he began shouting for the Raptors' coaching staff to put the Lithuanian back in the game.When that didn't work, the man yelled directly at Valanciunas to check himself back into the game: "Kobe do it all the time!" The quip brought a smile to Valanciunas' face.
As Casey sees it, a week full of bully-ball wouldn't have meant much in the grand scheme of things. Valanciunas is big and strong, and he's going to remain big and strong. The Raptors were more interested in evaluating Valanciunas' mental game, passing skills and decision-making. There have been hundreds of paint-fillers in NBA history but only one Arvydas Sabonis, and Valanciunas' technique, vision and feel suggest that spending his basketball life as just another brute would be a disappointment.
"We weren't looking for him to be a physical, dominating type guy," Casey said. "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."
Toronto has played through Valanciunas in a number of ways, feeding him the ball on the block, getting it to him him near the elbow and taking advantage of his strong, sturdy frame as a screen-setter. When positioned on the block, he's remained patient, waiting to see whether a help defender would come before seeking his own offense or finding the open man. When stationed farther from the basket, he's used his height to see passing lanes. Against the Nuggets, he memorably executed a beautiful touch pass for an easy backdoor layup.
This is no summer trial. Casey envisions Valanciunas, who averaged 23.9 minutes per game as a rookie last season, shifting into an expanded role in which he anchors both the Raptors' offense and defense. The coach says there's "no question" in his mind that Valanciunas will eventually evolve into the Raptors' franchise player.
"He's going to get more touches now in this coming season," Casey said. "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."
So much of the quarterbacking comes back to Valanciunas' excellent ball skills and fakes. Traditionally, young players are taught a "triple threat" position that keeps the ball near hip level, allowing an offensive player to either shoot, pass or dribble at a moment's notice. Valanciunas, though, has a credible triple-threat position with the ball up near his head. He can shoot, pass or fake any time he pleases, and he does so in such a smooth, controlled fashion that you ultimately feel pity for the defenders who invariably fall for the fakes.
"He reminds me of Jack Sikma," Casey said, a big smile coming across his face as he launched into a story from the good old days.
Sikma, a seven-time All-Star in the 1970s and 1980s, is remembered in coaching circles for the "Sikma move," a face-up motion with the ball kept high in a flexible position that allows for a quick jumper or an up-and-under fake to set up a drive to the basket.
Casey and Sikma were both assistant coaches with the Seattle SuperSonics in the early 2000s. Casey remembered a European player perfectly executing the "Sikma move" at a basketball camp in Seattle as Sikma, the inventor, played defense. When queried after the successful move, the young man admitted to having no idea who Sikma was, even though his imitation of Sikma's trademark move was dead on. Casey laughed at the thought of explaining to the kid that he had just successfully used the master's trick on the master himself.
"Jonas has it down pat," Casey said. "Up and go under. Either he knocks down that jump shot or you bite on the fake. He's done a heck of a job working on that move, perfecting it. I think it's going to be very helpful for him once the season starts."
The various work that Valanciunas has put into his game is evident. The Raptors are encouraged by his rebounding technique; he has learned to keep his arms free while establishing position, ensuring that he doesn't concede boards to smaller opponents. He appears in good shape, whether running end to end in open sequences or avoiding lazy leaning on half-court defensive plays. When he dips his shoulder to attack the paint on offense, the sweeping motion tends to look identical play after play, the product of what one imagines to be extensive hours of work in an empty gym.
His biggest area of improvement, meanwhile, isn't even technically a basketball skill.
"His English is 10 times better than my Lithuanian," Casey joked. "His English is so much better. Last year, I would be yelling at him and he would be like, 'OK, coach.' He had no clue what I was saying. ... Now, he is understanding the NBA verbiage -- floppy, tag, the everyday NBA words that you understand. He is learning those and that makes it easier and it makes for a quicker read, better communication in the flow of the game."
Just as Casey finished that thought, Valanciunas emerged from the Raptors' makeshift locker room, smiling, ice strapped to various parts of his body. Coach and player exchanged plans to remain in contact over the rest of the summer; Valanciunas assured Casey that he will be checking his email no matter where he is in the world.
"Great personality, upbeat kid, funny kid, very intelligent young man," Casey said. "I think he's shown the growth and the domination in these games to be the [summer league] MVP. I'm biased because he's mine, but he's got my vote."