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2011 No. 5 pick Jonas Valanciunas brings promise to an improving franchise.
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Raptors banking on the development of Valanciunas

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Oct 16 2012 2:21PM

Every NBA team wants that guy, a franchise player that can anchor them on both ends of the floor, make his teammates better, and lead them into title contention. With that in mind, Jonas Valanciunas arrives in Toronto this season with high expectations.

Valanciunas, whom the Raptors selected with the No. 5 pick in the 2011 Draft, comes with the size (6-11, 230), skill set and attitude that could eventually turn him into one of the best centers in the league. Many believe that he would have been selected second, behind only Anthony Davis, if he had been in this year's draft.

Like Davis, Valanciunas isn't old enough to buy a beer in this country. So Raptors fans will need to stay patient. They've already waited a year for Valanciunas to come over from his native Lithuania, and it may be another year or two before he's an integral part of Dwane Casey's offense.

"Throwing into him in the post and expecting points is something that we're going to look for down the road," Casey said in training camp. "If he gets it [this season], it's gravy."

The Raptors do need to find offense from somewhere, because they ranked 25th on that end of the floor last season. But the return of a healthy Andrea Bargnani and the addition of point guard Kyle Lowry should help Toronto take a step forward offensively, with or without a major contribution from Valanciunas.

Now, it's not like Casey and Raptors president Bryan Colangelo don't expect Valanciunas to contribute at all this season. They just want him to keep it simple and play hard.

"As long as he's on the court, he will be affecting the game in a positive way," Colangelo said. "And I think that's going to bode well for him, in terms of his development as a player, but also for us."

"What I want him to do is relax and let his playing personality come out," Casey added, saying that he'd like to see Valanciunas "be an energy guy, doing what he does best, which is rolling to the bucket, providing energy, running the floor, protecting the paint."

The Raptors already have a center who does those same things very effectively. Amir Johnson was their best player in terms of plus-minus impact last season, is one of the most underrated defenders in the league, and has already gained Casey's trust. Their third center, Aaron Gray, has the bulk that may be needed against the league's bigger post men.

"I'll make the decision whether to throw Jonas out there and let him get his feet wet, play through some situations, and see how he progresses," Casey said. "If he closes games, that's great. That means he's really improved and we're really doing well. Right now, with Aaron's experience and Amir's experience, they're probably better suited to closing games."

Just in the Raptors own division, they'll face the likes of Kevin Garnett, Tyson Chandler, Andrew Bynum and Brook Lopez at the center position. And while Valanciunas is the future, the Raptors want to win games now.

"The goal is making the playoffs," Colangelo said. "If you look at last year, we called that a 'building year.' The year prior was rebuilding. This is Year 3 of this process, and we're calling this 'the acceleration phase.' We hope to make the playoffs."

It doesn't help Valanciunas' early development that he suffered a strained calf in September and was on the sidelines for the start of training camp. His performance at the Olympics was another sign that he might not be ready to make a major splash in the NBA. He averaged just 6.3 points and 6.0 rebounds, committing 6.6 fouls per 36 minutes and failing to make much of an impact on either end of the floor as Lithuania went a disappointing 2-4 in London.

But while those six games may have tempered expectations for Valanciunas' rookie year, they didn't do much to discourage the Raptors' belief that he's something special.

"You can't look at that as one little bit and say that's who he is as a player," Colangelo said. "I look at the whole body of work and I know that, as a 20 year old, to have the kind of energy, the kind of enthusiasm, the kind of personality as a seven-footer... It's a tough package to find, but we found it. And we think some good things are going to come of it."

It may just be that good things come to those who wait.

Three points

1. In Lowry and Jose Calderon, the Raptors have two starting-caliber point guards. But Lowry is clearly more Casey's kind of player. "Both of them bring a different thing to the table," Casey said. "Jose is a very confident guy, but Kyle comes with a different swagger. He has the ability to get to where he wants to go on the court with the ball. He's a leader naturally. Guys gravitate to him."

2. Bargnani's absence for 35 games really hurt the Raptors offensively last season. And Casey believes it affected DeMar DeRozan in particular. "When you take one of your best 3-point shooters out, it really condenses the floor," Casey said. "And [DeRozan] had nowhere to go when he went to drive to the bucket."

3. The question now is if Ed Davis will get lost in the shuffle. After a disappointing sophomore season, the 2010 Lottery pick finally got a full summer and training camp to develop his game. But his playing time will be limited by the need to give Bargnani, Johnson and Valanciunas their minutes.

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

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

AT A GLANCE

LAST YEAR: 23-43, 4th in Atlantic

FINISH: Missed playoffs

2011-12 Regular Season Standings

2011-12 TEAM LEADERS

Andrea Bargnani

19.5 PPG

Ed Davis

6.6 RPG

Jose Calderon

8.8 APG

2011-12 STATISTICS

 OFFENSEDEFENSE
PPG90.794.0
RPG42.040.5
APG20.920.1
FG %0.4400.435
3PT %0.3400.328
FT %0.7700.744
 Complete 2011-12 Stats 
STARTING FIVE

KYLE LOWRY, POINT GUARD

14.3 PPG | 6.6 APG | 4.5 RPG

Strong defender and solid playmaker who gets to the line, but he's not a great finisher at the basket and can be a little sloppy with the ball.

DEMAR DEROZAN, SHOOTING GUARD

16.7 PPG | 3.3 RPG | 2.0 APG

In the final year of his rookie deal, pressure is on DeRozan to prove he's more than a high-volume scorer. Shooting and defense are still questions.

LANDRY FIELDS, SMALL FORWARD

8.8 PPG | 4.2 RPG | 2.6 APG

We'll see now if Carmelo Anthony was really the problem. Fields shot 52 percent before Anthony's arrival in New York and 46 percent since.

ANDREA BARGNANI, POWER FORWARD

19.5 PPG | 5.5 RPG | 2.0 APG

The Toronto offense was decent when the multi-faceted big man was on the floor last season, but he only played 31 games, dealing with a calf injury.

JONAS VALANCIUNAS, CENTER

N/A

He'll do his best work inside, but he's not a terrible shooter either. His development throughout 2012-13 will be the biggest factor in the Raptors' future success.

RESERVES
NAMEHTWTPOSCOMMENT
Jose Calderon6-3211GBenched and clearly not in the Raptors' long-term plans.
Amir Johnson6-9210F/CCasey will continue to rely on his best interior defender.
Terrence Ross6-6195GCould give the Raps a reason to let DeRozan walk next summer.
 Complete Roster 
OFFSEASON MOVES

ADDED: F Quincy Acy, G Terrence Ross, C Jonas Valanciunas, G Landry Fields, G Kyle Lowry, G John Lucas III, G Jerel McNeal, F Chris Wright

LOST:  G Jerryd Bayless, F Gary Forbes, F James Johnson

MAN ON THE SPOT

JONAS VALANCIUNAS, CENTER

Valanciunas will finally suit up for the Raptors this season. What kind of impact the No. 5 pick of the 2011 Draft will have remains to be seen, but Toronto is excited about what the rookie big man can bring to the offensive end.

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