The expectations for Jonas Valanciunas remain considerable, even grandiose: Double-double production on a nightly basis, pushing toward 20/10 status. Heavy minutes regardless of his team’s or the opponents’ strategy, with the discipline to avoid foul trouble that would thwart that.
Sooner rather than later, the ability to score like Brook Lopez, rebound like Tyson Chandler and protect the rim like Roy Hibbert. In short, become the cornerstone at both ends of the floor that the Toronto Raptors envisioned when they spent the No. 5 overall pick on him in June 2011 and then waited 14 months to see some return.
The results so far have been much more modest.
In Toronto’s first three games, the 6-foot-11 center from Lithuania averaged 6.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.3 shots in 21.7 minutes, essentially a push with his 2012-13 stats (8.9, 6.0, 1.3 and 23.9). Still 21 with a mere 65 games of NBA experience, Valanciunas has made nine of his 22 shots and had only two chances from the line.
He logged just 16:16 in the Raptors’ victory at Milwaukee Saturday, with three first-half fouls only part of the reason. Though he was effective (seven points, six rebounds) when he was out there — and the other Toronto starters made sure to look for him in the early going, something that doesn’t always happen with ball-stickers Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan – Valanciunas played fewer than six minutes in the third quarter and none at all in the fourth.
With the Raptors at home against Miami Tuesday, it’s possible his court time will be limited again, given the Heat’s propensity for smaller, quicker lineups. In other words, Valanciunas’ breakthrough season is still tap-tap-tap-tapping from the other side.
“He’s gonna get there,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey after the victory over the Bucks. “Believe me, he’s gonna get there.”
Just not overnight or even in 15 months of overnights. One of the reasons for Valanciunas’ idle time in Milwaukee was small ball, with Casey countering the lineup Bucks coach Larry Drew put out there. No Larry Sanders, no Zaza Pachulia, no Ersan Ilyasova down the stretch. The Raptors had encountered the same thing 24 hours earlier in Atlanta, where the big guy played only 4:40 after halftime.
“It’s just such a challenge for him, not only in the halfcourt game but getting back in transition,” Casey said. “Because they had [Al] Horford bringing the ball down in transition and now it’s 5-on-4. It was a quick game. But again, for him to grow and get better, he’s going to have to learn to play in those situations.”
Another reason is Casey’s desire not to let winnable games slip away. The coach is in the final year of his contract. He has new bosses, including GM Masai Ujiri, who aren’t the folks who hired him. And anything even close to the Raptors’ 3-13 start last season, for a team with rumbling ambitions of the postseason, likely would be curtains for Casey.
The coaches did force-feed Valanciunas some minutes last season, and the results paid off more for the individual than the group. In the 20 games in which he played 30 minutes or more, he averaged 14 points and 7.9 rebounds. But Toronto went 7-13 in those games, including 0-6 in the ones prior to Jan. 1.
The final reason for Valanciunas’ regulated playing time is a sense that he’s a little court weary. Remember, besides the long runs he got last spring, he participated in the Las Vegas Summer League, where his 18.0 points and 10.0 rebounds earned him the MVP award. From there, it was on to the EuroBasket Championship in September, helping Lithuania earn the silver medal. He went through his first NBA training camp last month, then started seven preseason games, averaging 8.7 points and 6.4 boards.
Now, Valanciunas knew what he was in for. He talked in camp of being up for the workload. He has been able to maintain his bulked-up form and strength.
But several Raptors insiders will tell you that, frankly, he is a little gassed right now. Certainly too much for the pace of small ball or keeping up with bigs who routinely get out in transition.
“There’s going to come a time,” Casey said, without apparent worry, “where he’s going to be able to do that.”
That and much more, if the plan proves out.