The Toronto Raptors haven't made the playoffs in five years, the third longest active drought in the NBA. Entering their 19th year of existence, the Raps have advanced past the first round of the playoffs just once. Yet even after another meandering sub-.500 season and a summer defined by front office upheaval and subtractions from the roster, there's a sweeping sense Toronto could soon be on the cusp of something big.
Jonas Valanciunas is a major reason why.
There simply aren't many humans alive who fit the profile of an NBA center as well as Valanciunas, a former teenage prodigy from Lithuania who has turned into the hulking big man prototype he was always tabbed to become. He's no longer the rough sketch Toronto drafted No. 5 overall in 2011 despite just one full season in Euroleague and a handful of impressive results in junior tournaments. Valanciunas is now potential realized.
Valanciunas is 6'11 and 240 pounds with a growing, muscular frame and the athleticism required to match up with the agile giants patrolling the paint in the NBA. The Lithuanian center made critical strides as a rookie in the second half of last year, and an offseason spent in the weight room has many excited to see what the 21-year-old will do next.
A stronger looking Valanciunas drew rave reviews at Las Summer Vegas League in July, taking home MVP honors by averaging 18.8 points and 10 rebounds per game. While success in summer league is hardly a guarantee for future stardom, Valanciunas' performance amounted to taking care of business. There wasn't anyone else in Las Vegas with Valanciunas' package of size and talent, and he dominated the way he should have.
It's all part of the plan for the Raptors, who have been waiting on their next star since Chris Bosh bolted in free agency in 2010 to join the Miami Heat. While it's too early to say if Valanciunas can make that type of impact, he's at least a solid building block for new GM Masai Ujiri.
Ujiri, the reigning Executive of the Year for his work with the Denver Nuggets, was the Raptors' marquee addition of the summer. After years of underwhelming draft picks, shortsighted trades and a little bad luck, Ujiri is the type of mastermind who should be able to get the Raptors out of the lottery doldrums. That starts with surrounding Valanciunas with players who compliment his skills.
Valanciunas is far from a finished product, but he already proved himself valuable as a rookie. An NBA center is on par with the NFL's quarterback when it comes to its importance to a winner and the notoriously difficult developmental process, but Valanciunas has already made every indication he can handle himself as a starter.
Valanciunas fought through hand and neck injuries as a rookie, but still made 57 starts for Toronto and got better as the season progressed. He was named the Eastern Conference's Rookie of the Month in March after averaging 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and his numbers only got better in April.
The strong home stretch is a big reason why optimism around Valanciunas is swirling, but there's still plenty of room for improvement. Right now, Valanciunas scores mostly off dunks and putbacks at the rim. Last season, over 25 percent of his makes came off dunks. He used the easy buckets to finish with a true shooting percentage of 61.8, the 10th-highest mark in the NBA.
Valanciunas was also tremendous in the pick-and-roll, where he averaged 1.23 points per possession, 16th-best in the league, per MySynergySports.com.
A steady jump shot will be the next weapon Valanciunas will need to develop offensively, but Toronto's improvement will have more to do with how much better their center gets on defense next season. Valanciunas was not a great defender by most accounts last year, but he showed the ability to keep himself out of foul trouble. That's huge for a big man with the foot speed and oversized wingspan to become a dominant force inside if given the right defensive scheme and tutoring.
There's plenty of pressure on Valanciunas, both from the Raptors and his home country of Lithuania, where each is dying for a star. That's been his projected ceiling since entering adolescence. Now that the spotlight is shining its brightest, it's time for Valanciunas to make good on everything people have been saying about him for years.