It was jarring to watch the low point of Jonas Valanciunas’ up-and-down tenure with the Toronto Raptors come in a random November game against the Indiana Pacers.
It was only one year ago when Valanciunas led the Raptors to an excruciating seven-game series win over the Pacers as part of the deepest playoff run in franchise history. Valanciunas grabbed 19 rebounds in Game 1, followed by a herculian 23-point, 15-rebound effort in a must-win Game 2.
Every Raptors fan was screaming for more of the big Lithuanian: more minutes, more touches, more shots, more of the swaggering “I-don’t-know-any-better-to-be-afraid” confidence that the two shook stars lacked.
Valanciunas looked like the budding star to carry the Raptors into the future, the type of dominant interior presence that this franchise has never had in over two decades of existance.
That same man is unrecognizable only a year later.
Valanciunas was nothing short of distraught after being benched for the second half of Friday’s loss in Indiana. It was yet another bad matchup for the lead-footed Valanciunas, who looked entirely helpless against the hard-charging Pacers.
Early in the first quarter, Valanciunas set up shop on the weak side hoping to poach for an offensive rebound — a totally normal play for a center — but got beaten so badly down the other end that the opposing center got off a completely clean corner three.
These are types of plays that make a coach snap because there’s no planning around a physical shortcoming. You can’t be beaten so badly by your matchup that they’re already in the opposite corner when you’re barely at the 3-point line. These are the types of plays that corrupts morale from the rest of your teammates, because what is anyone even supposed to do about that?
Dwane Casey benched Valanciunas after falling into yet another early deficit, and didn’t bring him back for the rest of the first half as the Raptors mounted a comeback and took the lead. Valanciunas opened the second half on the bench and was seen being comforted by Bebe Nogueira as Pascal Siakam took his place.
Valanciunas only saw the floor again as part of a lost souls bench lineup that — if there is a benevolent God — will never see the floor ever again in a meaningful moment. He finished as a minus-20 in 14 minutes, which looks even worse given that it was only a 3-point loss.
He was always a good soldier who took his lumps without speaking out, but on this day on his old stomping grounds, Valanciunas couldn’t keep it together.
This isn’t the first time he was benched, but this was the first time he was distinctly disconnected with the team, that he wasn’t necessary, that he wasn’t wanted, and that he was actively hurting the team.
“You know what’s in my head?” Valanciunas said loudly to Kyle Lowry in front of reporters. “I’m trying to give it everything. You see what they do to me?”
This frustration had been building all season. Valanciunas had his moments — big numbers against Chicago and Detroit, big heart against Boogie Cousins — but he has largely been a hinderance. His plodding style sticks out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of how the team plays without him.
There’s a noticeable drag, both emotionally and physically, when he is on the floor. He makes reads too late, he’s in the wrong spots, he’s too slow in transition, he’s clogging the paint, and he’s squeezing the ball too tight and making uncharacteristic errors around the basket.
What’s worse is that he knows it, his teammates know it, the fans are catching on, and even his hard-headed coach is losing his patience. Valanciunas is dragging everyone down.
“Frustrated,” Valanciunas said after being largely overlooked in a loss to the Knicks on Wednesday. “It’s been tough, man. I’m just doing my job, using my opportunities. I get time, I play hard. If I don’t get time, I wait for the time to come to me.”
It’s understandable that Valanciunas would feel helpless.
The game has evolved dramatrically over the last few years. First it was the stretch four. Then it was playing with pace and prioritizing the 3-point arc. Then came the stretch five. The final blow has come in the form of point guards who can pull-up from deep for an efficient shot off the high screen.
Now it’s evolved to the point where positions are largely meaningless, which means everyone has to have the same skills, and most importantly, everyone has to be able to guard everyone on the floor. Valanciunas guards exactly one position, and it happens to be the one that is being steadily erased.
The evolution of the game has turned Valanciunas into a dinosaur. He’s everything you’re not supposed to be in the modern game. He can’t shoot, he can’t help you in transition, he can’t make quick reads, and most importantly, he can’t guard pick and roll.
You can hide almost every position on the floor, but a defensively-inept center will always corrupt everything since they’re supposed to be the last line of defense. Valanciunas couples poor feet with poor timing and poor instincts, which makes him an obvious target for opposing offenses. Teams gear their entire schemes to draw out Valanciunas and force him to make decisions.
It happens every night. Valanciunas is the common denominator (along with DeMar DeRozan) in all of the Raptors’ worst defensive pairings.
It would be one thing if Valanciunas was making it all back as a core piece on offense, but that simply isn’t the case.
Valanciunas is a useful contributor in terms of his offensive rebounding and his screen setting as evidenced by the Raptors scoring 1.16 points per play when he’s on, but the Raptors are just as good with Serge Ibaka (1.15) or Jakob Poeltl (1.17) as the center.
And while the Raptors might be able to get more out of Valanciunas in terms of his personal numbers, it doesn’t necessarily help the team at large. There’s no correlation between how much Valanciunas gets the ball and how much the Raptors win.
So if you can get the same production on offense, while vastly improving the defense, wouldn’t you make the same call as Casey?
It’s one thing to feel sorry for yourself, it’s another to take action to change your situation. For that reason, I don’t feel bad for what has become of Valanciunas.
Yes, he works hard. He plays with the stubborness of a bull and trains in the offseason in addition to making annual apperances for the Baltic Giants. For all of Valanciunas’s faults, you can’t say he doesn’t put in effort.
But has he done anything to improve his own situation? Does none of the responsibility ever fall on Valanciunas for controlling his own destiny? Yes, the world is moving away from him, but why must he be a passenger to these trends? Does he have economic anxiety?
The game could have easily passed by a midrange maestro like DeRozan, but he took tangible steps to improve as a ball handler and made himself an All-NBA player. The same could be said of Lowry, who capitalized on the league’s trends and turned into an elite 3-point shooter earning $30 million per year. Look at how much of a leap players like Pascal Siakam, Poeltl, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, and to a lesser extent Norman Powell, have made in their short time with the franchise.
What has Valanciunas done to adapt? Save for coming back stronger in his sophmore year (which literally every big man needs to do) and honing that pump fake that only works on the most gullible, what area of the game has Valanciunas shown improvement in? He still can’t dribble, pass, shoot or defend.
The excuse has been that big men take longer to learn the game, but has there even been any progress in six years? He is the same player he always was.
You don’t get to cry about being left out when you don’t do anything about it. And when you think back to comments made by Lithuania’s head coach Jonas Kuzlauskas (who is not some nobody; he’s a respected name in Europe, check the statistiks), it suddenly makes sense.
“I wish him to understand, that if you live only by talent, this fairy tale can end one day,” Kazlauskas said of the 24-year-old center, according to Lithuanians reporter Donatas Urbonas.
“I believe Lithuania will be his team in future and he’ll be fine,” the coach said. “But he has to dedicate himself to basketball more.”
These expectations of Valanciunas blossoming into a star has to stop, because it’s just making things worse when he falls short.
No matter how much Matt Devlin gasses up his large son during the broadcast, the reality is that Valanciunas is simply a role player. And as with any role player, his production and usage needs to suit the team and the stars first, above the needs of his own. His role is to maximize everyone around him, not the other way around.
There are certain matchups where Valanciunas will thrive. If he can use his strength to either neutralize another post-up brute or to lean on a lob threat, that is generally how Valanciunas will be useful. He can also help on the glass and with setting screens, while his playmaking out of the high post is slowly starting to approach acceptable.
He can generally improve his performance by being more active. He’s a 7-footer built like a brick house, and as Marshawn Lynch says, most people aren’t going to be able to take it if you keep coming at them over and over (and over, and over, and over) again. Activity and hustle is something Valanciunas can control, and it’s how he can earn more minutes.
But Casey’s thinking should be this: If the matchup is right, play Valanciunas. If not, keep him on the bench. It should be that simple, but given his history and his contract, he continues to receive a consistent role. The coaching staff needs to eventually get to a point where they can go away from Valanciunas and have it be okay.
There’s going to be issues whether Valanciunas starts or if he comes off the bench. His lack of footspeed is already weighing down the first unit (although these issues go beyond Valanciunas) and his deliberate nature would not work with a second unit that prides itself on swarming defense and frenetic athleticism.
Personally, I don’t even mind if Valanciunas continues to start so long as he’s used properly. Golden State starts with Zaza Pachulia, Boston goes with Aryan Baynes, San Antonio opts for Pau Gasol in the starting lineup. It’s not uncommon for teams to start with a traditional look, before feeling out the opponent and adjusting accordingly.
The issue isn’t that Casey benched Valanciunas in the Pacers and Knicks games. The issue arises when Casey returns to Valanciunas in games where he clearly shouldn’t play like the first meeting against Washington.
Again, it’s crazy how things have changed since 2016.
It’s only a matter of time before the Raptors move on. That’s a hard pill to swallow, especially when you think about Valanciunas’ time in totality.
He was supposed to be the game-changing piece, the blue-chip prospect that we waited a year for, the one player with superstar potential on an otherwise limited team. Ex-Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo reportedly passed up on trade offers for James Harden and Kawhi Leonard, which established the reputation that Valanciunas was untouchable.
When the Raptors had planned to tank and rebuild after Masai Ujiri took charge, Valanciunas was that lone beacon of hope. A furious debate broke out between the pro- and anti- tankers but the one thing everyone could agree on was Valanciunas.
He was the future, and when Lowry and DeRozan put this franchise on a different path, Valanciunas was still the third piece that would put them over the top.
I believed in him too. The first time I wrote for a site other than my own was in 2013, when I did a deep dive on what Valanciunas could become. I concluded that he could develop into Marc Gasol.
“ … If Jonas’s bulk translates into better success against guarding post players, he may very well become an excellent interior defender. He is quick and he has excellent length. Don’t forget; Marc Gasol has not always been an elite defender, and he entered the league at 24. Their similarities mostly lay in the offensive end.”
The organization wasn’t as convinced. Ujiri signed Valanciunas to a rookie-scale extension that was widely praised as a bargain, especially from an asset-management perspective. He didn’t become Marc Gasol, but after that wicked playoff run in 2016, Valanciunas seemed destined to be a reliable starter at worst and potentially a top-10 talent at his position.
But even before Valanciunas signed the extension, the Raptors were already trying to pivot. They drafted Poeltl in 2016 along with Siakam, which were moves that looked perplexing at the time but are now wholly understandable. Ujiri was building a bridge to the future.
It wasn’t long before Valanciunas’ name was bandied about frequently, and the reports came back that nobody wanted to give up anything of value for him. Again, the motive was asset management: It made more sense to have an overpaid role player over having nothing at all.
Having played a quarter of the season, we can all see why Ujiri tried to move on. Valanciunas doesn’t fit and it’s painfully obvious.
When there is talk of the future, there is no mention of Valanciunas, even though he’s only 25. Ujiri clearly wants to build around multi-dimensional players like Siakam, Poeltl, Wright, Powell and OG Anunoby. Valanciunas is just another holdover from the last regime, a placeholder, an afterthought.
This is what it’s come to.