TORONTO - As Amir Johnson took a seat, having just picked up his sixth foul towards the end of Thursday's first overtime period, Patrick Patterson fouling out minutes earlier, Dwane Casey and his coaching staff mulled over their next move.
Huddling up, Casey consulted with his assistants for over 30 seconds before looking to the far side of his bench and reluctantly calling for Jonas Valanciunas.
The Raptors' starting centre had been a spectator since late in the third quarter, amounting to roughly an hour of real time spent on the bench since he was last on the floor.
As his coach feared, Valanciunas was more than a little rusty, playing 25 seconds in the first OT frame and the bulk of the second until Casey opted to go with Tyler Hansbrough to close the game in the third and final period of extra time.
"It really wasn't fair to Jonas," Casey said in hindsight, following his team's marathon 134-129 loss to Washington. "It wasn't his fault."
Upon reentering, Toronto immediately ran a pick-and-roll for Valanciunas, however the pass from Greivis Vasquez - who was trapped on the right elbow - was mistimed and ultimately deflected before it reached Valanciunas in the middle of the key, the turnover charged to Vasquez.
A few minutes later, Valanciunas received the ball on the left block and with the clock winding down he flipped up a quick shot that was swatted by Marcin Gortat, his first of two field goal attempts in the period, both blocked by Gortat.
With just over one minute remaining in double OT, the game tied at 116, Valanciunas negated a Vasquez runner, needlessly tipping in the shot that was already on its way down, above the cylinder. The look of frustration on the sophomore's face said it all. This was not his night.
The Raptors were outscored by 14 points in the 29 minutes that Valanciunas was on the floor.
"I feel really sad," Valanciunas lamented, with his head down after the game. "I feel really bad right now. I could do a much better job than what I did."
Valanciunas lost more than his rhythm, sitting as long as he did in the second half of Thursday's ball game. His confidence appeared to be at an all-time low.
The second-year centre has had a rough couple of weeks, averaging 7.1 points and 7.6 rebounds, shooting 45 per cent in 24 minutes per in his last eight games. Over the previous eight contests, he put up averages of 15.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, shot 58 per cent from the field and logged just over 29 minutes a night. Perhaps fatigue has played a factor - he eclipsed his minute total from his rookie season last week - but the most noticeable variation in his approach hinders on an immeasurable concept that he has downplayed in the past.
Valanciunas is a different animal when he plays with that edge, anger and fire, when he gets outside of his head, stops over-thinking the game and just plays basketball. Too often you can almost see his thought process on the court, his movements are robotic as he aims to avoid disaster, fearful of making a mistake that will draw the ire of his head coach. However, he's at his best when he plays freely and Casey knows it.
"The key is patience, not getting down on yourself, have fun," Casey said after morning shoot-around on Thursday. "I mean you're playing basketball. There's no pressure on JV to produce. The pressure is on DeMar (DeRozan) and Kyle (Lowry) and Amir, the older guys."
Given the unreasonably high preseason expectations it's easy to overlook the fact that Valanciunas is still only 21-year-old, playing in his first full season after missing a sizeable chunk of his rookie campaign due to injury. He's had an eventful year, participating in Summer League for the Raptors and competing with Lithuania in the FIBA qualifying tournament during the offseason. He's still learning the NBA game, getting fully accustomed to his surroundings and most importantly finding his way as a player. None of that is lost of Casey, who refuses to put the cart before the horse when it comes to the development of his young centre.
"I told him to stay with it," Casey said after Valanciunas logged just 17 minutes in Tuesday's win over Cleveland. "Right now he's pressing so much. [I] just told him to relax [and] play basketball."
On account of their unexpected success this season the Raptors' ultimate objective has been altered slightly. Although they're now looking ahead to the playoffs and hoping to make some noise come April, their primary goal has not changed. Casey is still focused on developing his young players, namely Valanciunas and fellow sophomore Terrence Ross.
"The hardest thing to do is to develop and win at the same time," Casey said. "Luckily we've got some wins and these guys are developing at the same time. It's the hardest thing to do because a lot of times they're in there when they really don't deserve to, not as much lately but in the first part of the year."
However, Casey won't coddle either sophomore with unconditional playing time. Valanciunas, like Ross, has had the opportunity to play and learn through his mistakes but the criteria for remaining on the floor long enough to do so has been made clear since the get go.
"Offensively right now, he's not making his post moves, but that's going to come," Casey said. "Get some sweat shots, get some tip-ins, go to the offensive boards, screen. Do some of the sweat jobs and that will help him get his rhythm in the post."
The process is gradual and, as Casey reminds us, it's not going to happen overnight. Valanciunas possesses the ability, the desire and the work ethic to be a top tier NBA centre but it's not going to happen in the middle of his second season. It takes time and no one in the Raptors' organization will rush him.
For now, Valanciunas is a matchup play. His minutes will continue to be sporadic as Casey leans on quicker, more experienced and versatile defenders in Johnson and Patterson some nights, depending on the opponent and whichever version of Valanciunas comes to play.
Through it all, he can't lose focus and most importantly he can't lose his confidence. He's got to keep his head up - on and off the floor - continue to work and learn whether he's in the game or on the bench. The Raptors are exercising patience with their young big man but he needs to be patient with himself.