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Jonas Valanciunas As Franchise Player

Through the first six games of the World Cup, no player has been more valuable to his team than Jonas Valanciunas, Lithuania’s 22-year old center. After riding the bench in the 2012 Olympics and serving as a role player at Eurobasket last summer, Valanciunas has moved into a featured role in this year’s tournament. He is the backbone of Lithuania’s game-plan on both sides of the ball, averaging 13 points, 8 rebounds and 1 block a game on 77% (!) shooting.

Despite losing star PG Mantas Kalnietis to a collarbone injury before the start of the World Cup, Lithuania has played extremely well in Spain. They went 4-1 in group play, knocking off Slovenia and losing to Australia, and beat New Zealand 76-71 in the round of 16. If they can get past Turkey on Tuesday, they would face the US in the semifinals and they appear to be the only team on that side of the bracket with a chance to give the Americans a game.

That’s almost entirely due to the presence of Valanciunas, one of only two NBA players, along with Donatas Motiejunas of the Houston Rockets, on their team. He almost single-handedly carried them to victory over New Zealand - not only could the Tall Blacks not match up with him in the post, they could barely even box him out. Valanciunas towered over their undermanned frontline, finishing the game with 22 points and 13 rebounds on 8-11 shooting.

At 7’0 245 with a 7’4 wingspan, Valanciunas is one of the biggest players in the NBA and he appears to have gotten even bigger in the offseason. Like many big men in their early 20’s, he is still filling out his frame and growing into his body. While he’s not an elite athlete, Valanciunas moves well for a player his size, which allows him to be an effective player on both ends of the floor. He is the rare center who can impact the game on offense and defense.

The offensive side of the ball is where Valanciunas has shown the most improvement at the World Cup, where he is getting the chance to be a featured player. Instead of using him primarily in the pick-and-roll game, Lithuania is making a concerted effort to pound the ball into him in the post. He has the size and strength to establish deep post position, the length to score over the top of defenders and the touch to get the ball softly on the rim.

Valanciunas is still far from a finished product with his back to the basket, but he is steadily improving that aspect of his game, to the point where opposing teams almost have to double him. The result is that he opens up the floor for the rest of Lithuania’s players, almost all of whom can knock down the three-point shot. With Motiejunas spreading the floor from the power forward position, they are a tough match-up for just about any team in the tournament.

Even the Americans, who gave up 25 points and 8 rebounds to Mexico’s Gustavo Ayon in the round of 16, will have their hands full with Valanciunas. That is why Lithuania’s quarterfinal game with Turkey will be so intriguing, as they have one of the only big men in the World Cup (Omer Asik) with the size to bang with Valanciunas in the paint. Asik, one of the best post defenders in the NBA, will be a good test to see how far his individual offense has come.

What makes Valanciunas so interesting, though, is that he provides value on defense as well. Most guys with his ability to score in the paint can’t match his ability to protect the rim or vice versa. Asik is the perfect example - for as good as he is on defense, he’s a non-entity on offense. Valanciunas, on the other hand, can give the Lithuania 20+ points while also serving as the backbone of their defense. He makes everyone better on both sides of the ball.

Lithuania doesn’t have a ton of athleticism on the perimeter, but their guards can extend out on defense and jump passing lanes because they know have a mobile Goliath behind them. Valanciunas doesn’t have monstrous block numbers, but he doesn’t need too to have an impact on the game. Just by moving his feet, waving his arms and standing at the front of the rim, he makes life much harder for any offensive player who gets into the lane.

In essence, having Valanciunas on your team means you have will a good defense and a good offense, which automatically makes you a dangerous team, at any level of basketball. Few players can have a bigger impact on a game than a two-way center, which is why they have always been one of the most coveted players in the sport. Without Kalnietis, Lithuania doesn’t have much perimeter talent, but Valanciunas’ presence means they can punch above their weight.

You can count the number of centers in the NBA with more two-way ability than Valanciunas on one hand - Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Tim Duncan. The scary part is that he’s only scratched the surface of his potential. He’s still only 22 years old - he should be a senior in college. Not only does he still have room to improve as a post scorer and an interior defender, he’s shown flashes of a perimeter jumper and a passing game in Spain.

He hasn’t gotten much press because he’s been confined to a smaller role with the Toronto Raptors, with usage ratings of 16.9 and 18.5 in his first two seasons in the NBA. They won’t turn their offense over to him overnight like Lithuania has done, but you can expect that they will continue to gradually expand his role over the next few years. The Raptors will be counting on internal improvement and featuring Valanciunas is one easy way to do that.

The reason that big men tend to develop slower than guards is that they are pressed into service at a much earlier age. A perimeter player as raw as Valanciunas would not have broken into the NBA as a starter at the age of 20. However, because there are so few human beings in the world with his combination of size, skill and athleticism, he was forced to learn on the job. He didn’t go to high school or play AAU basketball - he was a pro at the age of 15. 

Valanciunas won’t reach his ceiling as a player until 2020, when he is in his late 20’s. Until then, he should steadily improve every season on both sides of the ball, much as he has done over the last three years, since he made his debut on the international stage. He is a franchise player in every sense of the word, both for his NBA and national team. As long as they have Valanciunas, both Lithuania and the Toronto Raptors will be teams to reckon with.

RealGM's Playoff Predictions

Here are the playoffs predictions from eight of RealGM's writers.

Christopher Reina (@CR_Reina)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Raptors, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Thunder

Finals Winner: Thunder

The wear and tear of reaching The Finals in each season since the formation of the Big 3 will finally catch up with the Heat against the Thunder. Kevin Durant and LeBron James will be as brilliant as expected in this series, but it will come down to how healthy and effective Russell Westbrook is compared to Dwyane Wade, along with how stubborn Scott Brooks is with his rotations. With superstars potentially moving around again this offseason, this could be the last best shot for Oklahoma City.

Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Raptors, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat. Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Thunder

Finals Winner: Thunder

Unseating the two-time reigning champions is difficult, but Oklahoma City has the likely MVP and a motivation that still permeates from its defeat in The Finals last season. The Heat's health also could be put into jeopardy this late into a fourth straight run to the championship series.

Jonathan Tjarks (@JonathanTjarks)

First Round Winners: Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, Pacers, Heat, Raptors, Bulls

Second Round Winners: Spurs, Thunder, Pacers, Heat

Conference Finals: Thunder, Heat

Finals Winner: Heat

Miami still has the best player in the world and they've done a much better job of managing Wade's minutes in the regular season. Watch out for Greg Oden and Michael Beasley - I could see both playing a huge role at certain points in the playoffs. 

Daniel Leroux (@DannyLeroux)

First Round Winners: Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, Pacers, Heat, Nets, Bulls

Second Round Winners: Spurs, Clippers, Pacers, Heat 

Conference Finals Winners: Spurs, Heat 

Finals Winner: Heat

This year is challenging because I feel the Spurs are the best team, but Miami has the twin benefits of being more likely to make the Finals due to a weaker conference and having the best player in the world will of course prove valuable should they make it. Health will be a major factor and it would make sense for it to hit the Heat due to their age but that does not trump their other advantages in my mind.

Andrew Perna (@Andrew_Perna)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Nets, Heat, Spurs, Blazers, Clippers, Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Thunder

Finals Winner: Thunder

Durant will best LeBron as the league’s MVP and deal another blow by preventing the Heat from three-peating in June. Oklahoma City will have two of the best three players in the Finals, which will be the determining factor even if Miami has three of the top five.

Sam Yip (@SamYip_NBA)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Nets, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Spurs

Finals Winner: Spurs

Although Miami has been on top of the basketball world for two straight seasons, San Antonio's roster along with their improved bench will likely dethrone the defending champions. The Spurs were one Tim Duncan layup away from winning their first title since 2007 last season. The new 2-2-1-1-1 Finals format will give the Spurs an edge with their home court advantage.

Benjamin Cantor (@BenCantor_NBA)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Nets, Bulls, Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Spurs

Finals Winner: Spurs

Although the Thunder have given the Spurs trouble in the past, Popovich always seems to have a way to adjust to opponents who have beaten him in the past. Last year, many people thought the Grizzlies might give the Spurs trouble because of what happened in 2011, but Pop and the Spurs clearly showed they knew what adjustments to make when they swept Memphis in the conference finals. I think San Antonio's defense against Miami in last year's finals was outstanding and this year they'll have home court advantage in the finals. 

Dan Friederg (@danfriedberg)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Nets, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Thunder, Heat

Finals Winner: Thunder

With LeBron and KD both at the peak of their powers, the role players will make the difference. Caron Butler, Jeremy Lamb, and an improving Reggie Jackson will tip the scales over an aging Ray Allen, a fragile and unproven Greg Oden, and an empty space where Mike Miller used to be. Durant will hoist his first championship trophy to go with his first MVP award, and the world shall rejoice.

Two Reinventions: Previewing Raptors Vs. Nets

To get ready for the upcoming NBA playoffs, I want to take a look at a few key aspects in of certain series by examining important stats and key matchups. First, let’s have a look at the 3 vs. 6 battle in the East, which pits the Toronto Raptors vs. the Brooklyn Nets.

Both of these teams reinvented themselves for different reasons during the regular season. The Raptors became a winning ball club after trading the polarizing Rudy Gay, which had the positive effect of freeing up more opportunities for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Further, the Raptors finally played the hard-nosed defense that Dwane Casey had been hoping for since arriving to Toronto in 2011.

The Nets turnaround did not involve any sort of transaction. Instead, the Nets started playing their best when Jason Kidd embraced small ball by playing Paul Pierce at the 4. The result was the development of a more free-flowing Nets offense that exploits mismatches and always looks to make the extra pass.

Let’s take a look at both teams’ offensive and defensive ratings since their respective transformations. ***

*** The Raptors traded Rudy Gay on December 9. The Nets started playing better after losing to the Spurs on December 31.

 

ORTG

DRTG

Net RTG

Raptors

107.2

102.5

+4.7

Nets

105.9

103.9

+2.0

The numbers show that the Raptors are a better team, which makes sense given that they are the 3 seed and the Nets are the 6 seed. But what happened when these two teams faced off in the regular season after their respective turnarounds?

 

Wins

ORTG

DRTG

Net RTG

Raptors

2

107.5

102.4

+5.1

Nets

1

102.4

107.5

-5.1

The Raptors saw a slight uptick in their offensive and defensive production relative to their season averages while the Nets clearly struggled on both ends of the floor. We’ll start with the Raptors offense vs. the Nets defense.

Raptors Offense vs. Nets Defense

First, the Nets allowed three more second chance points per 100 possessions to the Raptors then they did to their other opponents. This is not all that surprising given that the Raptors are a top-10 offensive rebounding team and the Nets are a bottom-10 defensive rebounding team.

Perhaps a less predictable and more significant occurrence was that the Nets conceded two more points in the paint per 100 possessions than their average. That was largely because of Kyle Lowry’s excellence in getting into and finishing in the lane. Lowry has been so effective as a scorer this season because of his dual ability to score in the paint and from behind the 3-point line. His offensive versatility gave the Nets fits during the regular season and Coach Kidd has some important decisions to make with regards to how to defend Lowry and the Raptors other perimeter players.

Shaun Livingston is probably the Nets’ best option for guarding Lowry because he has the length and quickness to stay in front of Lowry and contest his jump shots. The problem with putting Livingston on Lowry is that Livingston is also the Nets best option for guarding DeRozan. In fact, according to NBA.com/stats, DeRozan shot 8-9 when Joe Johnson was guarding him and only 2-7 when Livingston was guarding him. Of course, this is a small sample size, but Livingston’s quickness advantage over Johnson makes him more suitable to guarding DeRozan, who likes to slash his way into the lane.

Look for the Nets to utilize Andrei Kirilenko or Alan Anderson on DeRozan so that Livingston can take on the Lowry matchup. This would have the added effect of allowing Deron Williams to hide on one of the Raptors’ less prominent perimeter options like Terrence Ross or Greivis Vasquez.

Nets Offense Vs. Raptors Defense

On the other side of the floor, the Nets’ small-ball style of play did not work as well against the Raptors as it did against many of their other opponents. The Nets play a very deliberate style of offense in which they use a lot of the shot clock to create and exploit whatever mismatches they can find. That often involves posting up Joe Johnson against smaller defenders or utilizing Paul Pierce’s speed against slower opposing big men. These mismatches are intended to either present Johnson or Pierce with a good opportunity to score in isolation or force the defense to provide help. If the defense decides to rotate, the Nets will look to move the ball until it finds an open man on the perimeter for a clean 3-point attempt.

This plan was not particularly effective against the Raptors, however, because the Raptors defenders were able to match up individually without requiring much help. Ross held his own against the stronger Joe Johnson and the Raptor bigs, particularly Amir Johnson, did a nice job of corralling Pierce. The Nets inability to manufacture mismatches caused them to have trouble creating offense. This is evidenced by the their uptick in turnovers and decline in assists relative to their norms.

 

AST %

TO Ratio

AST/TO Ratio

Nets since 1/1/14

58.4%

15.3

1.47

Nets vs. Raptors

50.5%

16.6

1.11

While the Nets’ average AST/TO Ratio isn’t great (ranks 20th in the league since January 1st), the 1.11 AST/TO ratio that they posted against the Raptors would rank as the lowest in the league.

The Nets have to find a way to score consistently by inducing the Raptors defense to rotate and get out of position. Otherwise, the Nets offensive struggles against Toronto could continue into the postseason.

The Eastern Conference At The Deadline

The East deals included the only two All-Stars dealt (Antawn Jamison and Danny Granger), the two best players (Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes), and the smartest player (Professor Andre Miller, PhD).

Terrence Ross Keying Raptors' Ascent, Reason For Optimism

Over the last generation, many of the league’s best shooting guard prospects have been undone by getting too much too soon. Terrence Ross has been the exact opposite, an All-NBA talent forced to pay his dues and learn the game at every stop of the way.

Hansbrough Brings Experience, Toughness To Raptors

Tyler Hansbrough is far from an extrovert, but his experiences in Indiana are something he can pass along to teammates in Toronto. Like the Pacers, the Raptors are looking to transform into a contender through smart drafting and shrewd moves.

Why The Cavaliers' Model Continues To Setup Failure

The logic of the Cavaliers trading for Luol Deng is entirely backwards. Cleveland seems to think making the playoffs proves they are a legitimate NBA franchise. The reality is you can miss the playoffs and be a legit franchise and you can make the playoffs and not be one.

Rudy Gay Faces Difficulty Of Recapturing Budding Stardom

Rudy Gay reached a peak three seasons ago, and at 27 now he hasn’t attained the individual or team milestones that his gifts were expected to bestow. Three games into the Raptors’ season, his shooting is pedestrian and he admits he’s hastily searching for an offensive rhythm.

30 Rapid-Fire Questions For Each Team's Front Office

The following 30 questions are the biggest issues facing each NBA front office as the 13-14 regular season begins.

Top-10 Lottery Teams That Could Make The 2014 NBA Playoffs

The Pelicans, Raptors, Pistons, Wolves, Cavaliers, Blazers, Wizards, Mavericks, and maybe even the Kings and Bobcats could find their way into the playoffs if a number of things go right.

Jonas Valanciunas And The New Big Man Synthesis

The highest-drafted Lithuanian of all-time (No. 5 in 2011), Jonas Valanciunas is the rare gigantic center with both athleticism and coordination. When the biggest guy on the floor knows how to use his size to his advantage, it’s a problem for everyone else.

30-Team Offseason Rundown

Great drafts for the Rockets, 76ers, Nets, Warriors, Hawks and Grizzlies headline this complete rundown of the 2013 offseason.

2013 NBA Offseason Primer

With the 2013 NBA offseason underway, here is a primer on what all 30 teams are facing.

Leroux's 2013 NBA Draft Review

Breaking down all 30 teams by category of how they fared in the often surprising, never disappointing 2013 NBA Draft.

2013 NBA Amnesty Primer

One fun component of the Amnesty rule is that we know exactly which players are eligible for it and that number can only decrease over time since the players had to have been under contract with the same team before the new CBA.

John Lucas III Thrives After Adjusting To Raptors

From Tom Thibodeau’s strict system to Dwane Casey’s schemes, John Lucas III values the styles of both coaches. He’s forever grateful for the way he grew under Thibodeau, receiving his first true platform to exhibit his game, and enjoys the chance now with Casey’s Raptors.

Bargnani Still Overcoming Elbow Injury As Patience Runs Thin Around Him

For Andrea Bargnani now, there’s always something new – from criticism inside and outside the Raptors to continued discussion about his capacity living up to the No. 1 pick Toronto used on him in 2006.

How Many Players Teams Acquire At Each Trade Deadline On Average

The Kings, Knicks, Rockets, Thunder and Cavaliers have been the most active teams at the deadline over the past decade, while the Spurs, Pistons, Heat, Lakers and Pacers have made the fewest deals.

Jose Calderon Rejuvenates Pistons' Culture, Smoothens Offense

Jose Calderon has already injected the Pistons with a new sense of confidence. Lawrence Frank marvels about Calderon’s calmness and leadership, and the coach has begun to rely upon him to smooth over the offense and, more importantly, rub his knowledge on Brandon Knight.

The Raptors' Impasse Under Colangelo

The immediate returns and subsequent excitement for the Raptors between 2006 and 2008 masked a fundamental flaw in their approach: the team had no direction, and as such, no identity moving forward. This lack of identity is what has led the Raptors to their current four-year playoff drought.

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