Growth is always a tedious experiment that all humans have to go through, it can be a roller-coaster or a stroll through the park depending on the person and the events set out. It’s those events where you see a build of character and a build of patterns that people eventually portray. It’s how life works for everyone from when they are born to when they die, and the same can be said about when the Toronto Raptors drafted Jonas Valanciunas 5th overall in the first round in 2011. The Raptors have never been shy about drafting more or less off the board and drafting overseas, a couple examples is Andrea Bargani and Rafael Araujo. One who had a good start and an all star nod before succumbing to mediocrity, and the other one was such an off the board pick by dysfunctional management that it still haunts fans to this day. So it was with reason that Raptor fans were a little hesitant and skeptical about this Bryan Colangelo pick so early in the draft.
As is the case with many teams drafting high in the first round -that is unless you traded away your top pick- is drafting in the lottery portions of the draft because of how bad they are or how they need to rebuild and find an identity as a team. This was the case for the Toronto Raptors who after a lowly and tumultuous 60 losses season, followed that up by only winning 23 games and losing 43 in a lockout shortened year. This coming only a couple seasons after going to the playoffs for the second year in a row come 2008. A year or so later Chris Bosh left for Miami to join the superheat, and now the Raptors were left with an young and unproven 3rd year Demar Derozan, an Andrea Bargani that would have had some form of promise, but not enough and soon struggled mildly as the guy for Toronto, and a rookie big named Jonas Valanciunas, who had the tall task of filling the starting center spot for a rough front court.
Skills in such a fast-paced high octane sport like Basketball, which relies on skill almost as much as athleticism and height, can be something you either have, don’t have, or sometimes you just need a longer time developing those skills than others. Jonas had an “alright” post game that mostly consisted of running hooks and trying to out muscle guys inside, but he was better in the PNR where he could go for lobs and finish off plays with some solid offensive rebounding. But his passing out of the post was not good and his defense at times was lackluster, it was only his rookie year on a team that had no direction or real plan as to what they were.
Years went by and the Raptors got rid of Bryan Colangelo, brought in new ownership for MLSE (briefly) in Tim Leiweke, and Tim decided on Masai Ujiri to lead the Raptors onto better pastures. Masai had been with the Raptors before, but made his name in Denver where he made gold out of poop when Melo left for New York. The Nuggets made the playoffs after trading Melo, and then made the playoffs 4 out of the next 6 seasons with no real true star. Masai wanted to bring that same winning attitude to Toronto, while also growing the game outside of Canada with his Giants Of Africa program. Jonas improved in the years that Masai was brought in showing improvements both in rebounding, developing a semi mid range jumper that can be relied on, and his impressive free throw shooting for a man that size. But his lack of developing a true post-game followed with his defensive struggles, especially against other bigs hurt the Raptors, who relied heavily back then on iso plays and offensive rebounding.
It was the 2015-16 playoffs that Jonas shined finally for the Raptors, who went toe to toe against the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. He averaged a double double of 13 and 10 while getting good looks due to the Cavs running the blitz against Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan, who were relying way too heavily on iso ball and struggling. Jonas made it the best time to show what he has, but unfortunately got injured midway through the playoffs and didn’t really get back to that stage till this year.
But skills have a way of growing and evolving, it makes you more dangerous as a competitor, and makes your opponent respect your game more. Jonas in a whole new passing and moving system with the Raptors, where they see way more ways to score than just to pass it to their best player, relies on Jonas to score and his on court relationship with guys like Kyle and Demar is more positive than ever. Jonas is now a focal point for the offense with him posting a career high USG% of 22.1 the Raptors are not only looking for Jonas to rebound and putback after every miss, they are giving him touches to score, playing and trusting him more and more in the 4th and crunch time, and are allowing Jonas to develop something that I never though I would of seen, and that is a “consistent” three point shot. He doesn’t attempt a lot with just under an attempt a game, but defense’s now stretch out to defend him out on the perimeter, which allows him to use his trusted pump fake and attack the rim.
The Toronto Raptors are playing their best basketball ever in franchise history, with the best team in franchise history, and a culture reset from top to bottom of the playbook has allowed the Raptors to trust not only their young and awesome bench, but also trust their Lithuanian big man to not only be a part of the go to scoring, but at times to carry the team when guys like Demar and Kyle struggle. It shows maturity in both the organization and the player to grow those skills and use them in the biggest moments, and it shows trust in a player now in his 5th and possibly best season yet as a Raptor, to turn the script on his critics and fans. The Toronto Raptors have won 11 in a row and it’s hard to argue that JV has not been a key part in any of those wins.