The death of the back-to-the-basket big. That has been the developing trend and continued growing mindset in the NBA. Where has the classic big man gone? Extinct? Seems as if every seven-footer these days is a stretch four.
But in a league where the trend favors hard in one direction and tunnel vision occurs, having a weapon that others don’t… Well, that can prove priceless. Think about it: If everyone is bringing the slingshots to a fight and you show up with a cannon, you might have an advantage.
Now of course there is a difference in just having a back-to-the-basket big and actually having a dominant back-to-the-basket big. There’s very few of the latter. When you think of the most dominant low-post big men in the league, Marc Gasol comes to mind. Possibly Dwight Howard. But after that, it’s a struggle to come up with the next in line. Well, I’m here to tell you that next in line resides north of the border in Toronto – Jonas Valanciunas.
Poised for a breakout season this year, Valanciunas is the next great big man in the league. Going into his fourth season, Valanciunas has quietly continued to raise his production in nearly all major categories. Last season, he averaged 12.0 ppg and nearly 9 rebounds while shooting 57.2 percent from the field and 78.6 percent from the free throw line – astronomical for a big as you should well know after the 2015 playoffs… and he has only begun to scratch the surface of his potential.
The increase in his production and development each year is a huge credit to the Raptors’ staff and management. The commitment to offseason player development by one of the top coaching staffs in the league has paid huge dividends for Valanciunas. It’s the extended trips to Lithuania in the the summer to work with Valanciunas in musty European gyms that go unseen from the public’s eye. It’s the hours in the film room breaking down film to ensure that Valanciunas is used in the most efficient and effective situations. I know how hard the Raptors’ coaches work. It may go unnoticed and fly under the radar, but it pays dividends. That commitment by Toronto is a big reason why Valanciunas will be a Top 3 big man in the league this season.
Let’s break it down even further and find out exactly why this is the year Valanciunas puts his name on the map as a Top 3 big man in the league.
First, 34 percent of Valanciunas’ offensives touches are in the post with his back to the basket – a heavy amount in this day and age. Jonas is converting at a 1.023 points per possession rate and ranking in the Top 10 percent of the NBA in back-to-the-basket efficiency – ranking him higher than LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol.
However, Valanciunas isn’t only effective when he gets touches in the post. Jonas ranks in the Top 25 percent of the league in all but one of the main shot allocation areas used to judge an effective big man – post-up, cut finishes, offensive rebound put backs, pick-and-roll finishes and spot up.
In a league where 30-40 percent of half-court offense is predicated around the pick-and-roll, Valanciunas excels in these situations at a rate of 1.118 points per possession. A combination of soft hands, natural touch, better than average footwork and a big body rolling down the lane makes for a high level pick-and-roll big.
Not only does Valanciunas excel on the block with his back to the basket and in pick-and-roll situations, he is extremely underrated in transition. OK, he’s not Usain Bolt up and down the floor, but there is a lot to be said for a big that has a willing motor to get up and down. What stands out about Valanciunas in transition is the first two steps he takes when he changes from offense to defense and vice versa. That is the key for an effective big. The first two steps will force the big man’s defender to run with him in transition or allow him take the night off. Valanciunas is going to keep that motor running all night and you know it. Doesn’t hurt that he is finishing at a 1.378 points per possession in transition either. Top 8 percent in the the NBA, placing him above the likes of Jimmy Butler and Kevin Durant. Not a bad bonus to have. In a league where it’s now becoming rare to see a big man play with passion and fire, Valanciunas is a refreshing blast from the past.
The league is in love with big men that stretch the floor. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big an advocate as anyone of being able to stretch the floor and force the defense to guard 30 percent more of the court every possession. But should that infatuation devalue a potentially dominating big? All I’m saying is I’d rather have Jonas Valanciunas on my side than Mehmet Okur. Especially when he is extremely efficient in the pick-and-roll and transition – basically half of the offense generated by NBA teams.
So does Valanciunas deserve that four-year, $64 million deal? I don’t know if anyone is deserving of that type of money, but in the inflated income age of the NBA, the answer to that question would be a 100 percent YES.
David Nurse is a professional shooting coach. You can learn more about him at PerfectShotsBasketball.com, the best shooting and skills basketball website in the world. You can also follow him on Twitter @davidnurse05.