It took all of one outing before Jonas Valanciunas got his chance to start in the NBA, and he made the most of it.
Okay, it wasn't a REAL start. He started a preseason game against the same team he'd made his debut against two days prior, and the start shouldn't be seen as any kind of indication as to his role during the regular season. That said, Valanciunas acquitted himself nicely, playing a team-high 29 minutes and managing 11 points and 8 rebounds. His defense was tremendous for a young player, as he often stayed down on fakes and used his length to his advantage going against a stellar big man in Greg Monroe (who went 3-of-8 on the night for 9 points). In fact, Toronto's ability to throw two seven-foot defenders at Detroit with Valanciunas and Andrea Bargnani gave fans a real taste of what Toronto's frontcourt of the future is going to look like. Both players were engaged defensively and used their size to their advantage, forcing Detroit to uncomfortably pass out of situations in the post which helped the Raptors force 23 Pistons turnovers.
Most importantly for Valanciunas was his foul trouble, or lack thereof. There was a presupposition heading into his first season that Valanciunas would be a foul magnet. He's an active defender that has zero experience playing against NBA-level competition, and the expectation was that he'd simply be ill-equipped to handle himself defensively without fouling. Through two preseason games, though, foul trouble hasn't been an issue. He's played 42 minutes so far and only picked up a total of four fouls, and again that comes mostly against a legit NBA big man in Monroe. One could argue that Valanciunas has gotten off easy thus far because the intensity of preseason is in no way comparable to the average NBA game, but there is more to what he has shown than a simple metric of fouls per minute.
For Valanciunas, he has not shown a propensity for being bated by offensive players. When he's playing defense he stays low in his stance, moving his feet to keep pace with his man and stands straight up to contest shots, rarely if ever leaving his feet. Twice in his first game he managed to record a block (the eye said he managed three, but the stats say two), and in last night's outing he offered strong contests, with one of his fouls coming on an under-control block attempt (he caught Greg Monroe's body with his other hand).
When he was rotating in the team's schemes he was likewise under control, knowing how hard to close to eliminate shooting space without overcommitting and running the player over or giving them a chance to create contract. Against more savvy veteran players he may not be so fortunate, but he hasn't demonstrated the kind of overzealous activity on defense that plagues so many young, active big men. He's going to pick up fouls in his rookie year, big men simply bang too much to not, but if Valanciunas can avoid the kind of foul trouble that would consistently restrict his minutes, he may have a fighting chance of earning the starting center spot at some point during the season.
Here are some other notes after the Raptors' third preseason outing:
- DeMar DeRozan continued to attack on offense, but Detroit started getting wise to his strategy. Twice in quick succession DeRozan was called for changes while attempting to barrel his way to the basket, so he has to learn to balance his hard driving ways against the simpler pull-up jumper that should be there for him on the break if teams play back hoping to pick up the offensive foul.
- Andrea Bargnani continued to look disinterested at the offensive end but was much more plugged in at the defensive end. He partnered very well with Valanciunas on defense and wasn't nearly as susceptible to being beat on a rotation as he was on Wednesday in Detroit. He had only three rebounds, though, all of which came right out of the gates, so more effort is still required to finish off defensive stands, especially considering Detroit's 14 offensive rebounds.
- John Lucas continues to impress. While he shot poorly (3-10, 1-4 from behind the arc) he dished out 8 assists and once again used his speed to lead a potent bench attack.
- Ed Davis had a mini-breakout game last night, going for 12 points and 6 rebounds in just 18 minutes, and he even knocked down a little fourteen-foot jumper in the second quarter. Like Valanciunas and Bargnani, Davis and Amir Johnson played very well off of each other, especially on defense, which lends further support to getting those combinations on the floor as often as possible.
- The club is still having trouble integrating Landry Fields. While he was strong defensively against Detroit, making several pro close-outs, the team is not used to players like him who make strong moves off of the ball and need timely passes to capitalize on them. In the same way that Valanciunas needs to be rewarded for some of his hard rolls to the basket that leave him wide open, Fields needs his teammates to see the whole court when the have the ball so they can exploit his activity on the weak-side. While they're trying to use him as a ball-handler at times to keep him involved, that's not his greatest strength. Expect more attention to be paid in next week's games to getting him the ball in those situations.
- One of the problems plaguing Toronto in general is their lack of passing. DeRozan and Bargnani are already notorious for their reluctance to move the ball, but outside of the team's point guards no one is really looking to effectively setup other people on the team. Without a doubt it takes time to learn and adjust to new teammates, to their tendencies and where they are going to be on the court, but if the Raptors want a more effective offense this season they need to be much better at moving the ball and facilitating each other rather than just trying to do things by flying solo.