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Growth of Valanciunas could hold key to Raptors' season

POSTED: Aug 16, 2013 11:58 PM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann


Jonas Valanciunas averaged 18.8 points and 10 rebounds during Las Vegas Summer League.

This is the latest in a series of articles on the teams that did not make the playoffs last season, previewing their prospects of making it to the postseason in 2013-14. For a look at other teams in the series, click here.

Masai Ujiri Interview

The Toronto Raptors have been both a good offensive team and a good defensive team in Dwane Casey's two seasons as head coach, just not at the same time. When one side of the floor is working, the other is not, a good formula for being a mediocre team.

"We just got to put both of them together," DeMar DeRozan, the longest-tenured Raptor as he heads into his fifth season, said last month. "If we play defense, we can get easy buckets. We got a lot of talent on the team that can definitely score the ball."

The Raps are returning most of their rotation from the second half of last season. They went 18-18 after trading for Rudy Gay on Jan. 30 and were a pretty good defensive team with Gay on the floor. There should be room for a couple of new playoff teams in the Eastern Conference, and if they can pick up where they left off in April, Toronto will be competing for one of those spots.

The Raptors certainly aren't a finished product. New general manager Masai Ujiri was able to trade Andrea Bargnani, but has yet to really make his imprint on the franchise. For now, he will see what he has and be patient.

Where they've been

2012-13 record: 34-48

Division finish in 2012-13 (place in conference): 5th (10th)

Offensive rating in 2012-13 (NBA rank): 102.9 (14th)

Defensive rating in 2012-13 (NBA rank): 104.7 (22nd)

No team improved more defensively than the Raptors did in 2011-12, Casey's first season. They went from 30th in defensive efficiency, where they ranked in each of Jay Triano's last two seasons, to 12th, allowing 8.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did in 2010-11. But they were pretty terrible offensively and finished 12 games out of the playoffs.

Then last season, the Raps were the fifth most improved offensive team, jumping from 25th in offensive efficiency to 14th. But they regressed defensively and still finished 14 games under .500.

The Raptors are one of two Eastern Conference teams (Washington is the other) that haven't made the playoffs in the last five seasons, though three other East franchises (Brooklyn, Charlotte and Detroit) have worse records over that span.

Where they are now

The departures of Bryan Colangelo and Bargnani represent a new day in Toronto, but the on-court product shouldn't be much different than how the Raps ended the season. They were the lottery team without a lottery pick, having sent theirs away to get Kyle Lowry a year earlier.

Dwane Casey Interview

They were a different team after acquiring Gay, ranking 21st offensively and 14th defensively over their final 36 games. The hope is that continuity, along with the development of two second-year players, will be the key to playoff contention.

In 21-year-old center Jonas Valanciunas, there is real hope for marked improvement. The Lithuanian big man will have a season under his belt, as well as a full training camp, which he missed with an injury last year. And he has all the tools to be an anchor offensively.

DeRozan took notice of Valanciunas' improved physique and improved game in Summer League, saying "it can't do nothing but help raise our levels" and turn the Raps into "a complete team."

Biggest hurdle

If we're going off the last 2 ½ months of the season, the Raptors will need to find a way to score. Both DeRozan and Gay can do that to an extent, but neither is a very good perimeter shooter, so they don't complement each other very well.

DeRozan -- a 24-percent career shooter from 3-point range -- has been working on his jumper, knowing it's the key to both his own and his team's development.

"Definitely been working extremely hard on it this summer," he said. "I think I feel the most comfortable going into this season with it than I have than any other season."

Gay, meanwhile, had corrective surgery on his eyes, which should only help his own inconsistent jumper. Like Valanciunas, Terrence Ross could take a big step forward in his second season. And again, continuity is another part of the equation.

Amir Johnson Interview

"Now that we're going to have a full training camp, a full preseason ahead of us, we can't do nothing but get better," DeRozan said of his on-court relationship with Gay. "We understand each other's games, where we like the ball."

Where they're going

This is a transitional season for the Raptors, even though the only real change was in the front office. Until Ujiri makes his next move, we don't know exactly what direction he wants to take his new team. If Gay chooses to opt out of his contract next summer, Ujiri could have quite a bit of flexibility.

With the athleticism they have on the perimeter, the Raptors will be fun to watch. And they can certainly take a step forward this season if they build off of the improvement they showed in March and April, or if Valanciunas builds off his Summer League performance and proves he can be a defensive anchor as well as an offensive one.

The young center's development will ultimately help determine the direction of the franchise.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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