TORONTO – Jonas Valanciunas has heard all the talk about the role of the NBA center being marginalized.
He doesn’t buy it for a second.
“Hell, no,” he says when that very topic of the potential demise of the NBA big man is raised. “There are a lot of people who talk and I guess it’s their job to talk but our job is to make a basket, make a good read. But those guys whose job is to talk, they have to create something. Big guys are always going to be there. You have to have someone to rebound the ball, to protect the paint, and be a threat down low.”
But Valanciunas, now in his sixth year with the Raptors, is also aware the role of the big man is changing, not so much downsized as being reconfigured and adapting to those changes is something that he and every center has to accept. Valanciunas is eagerly embracing these changes.
Valanciunas will never be mistaken for a guy who is super quick, but even from the end of last season to this he has made significant progress in that department.
This past summer he spent the better part of an entire month working only his footwork to make himself quicker.
“It was about moving my feet better,” he said. “Being able to close out. Being able to stop the pick and roll and still get back to my man. We talked a lot with the coaches and we decided that was the focus so we did probably a full month just on footwork.”
That was part of the change. The other part was his role within the offence and with Toronto’s offence undergoing a substantial change, Valanciunas’ responsibilities have changed too.
He’s gone from a guy who plays within the offence to a guy who can dictate how it operates.
“I am much more involved in everything,” the Raptors 7-footer says. “I’m not talking about scoring. It’s about making decisions and being a part who is not just following the rules but someone who can help create the offence, create open shots for anybody else who is on the court.”
If you’ve watched any of the Raptors pre-season games to date, Valanciunas spends a whole lot more time out at the top of the key with the ball in his hands these days than the a guy strictly receiving the ball in the paint and backing a defender down.
Valanciunas is asked if his expanded role makes him feel a aall like a point guard.
“I don’t feel like a point guard because I have never seen a point guard as tall as me, but it’s not just about passing either,” he said. “ It’s not about making assists. It’s about making free moves. I mean you see DeMar (DeRozan) in the corner you go set a screen and he makes a layup. You are making decisions. You tell guys you go down and I go set a screen. Whatever. It’s not just making a basket or making assists, it’s setting good screens and making good reads too.”
While he looks lighter on his feet, Valanciunas says he weighs the same as he did last season.
“I don’t know if I’m lighter but I know I lost body fat,” he said. “That was the goal. Get more muscle and lose fat but I think I equaled out. It’s not like I lost weight or gained weight but I do know I lost body fat.”
Head coach Dwane Casey, who is admittedly more apt to be more free with the compliments this time of year, still sounded extremely bullish on this year’s Valanciunas even on a day when the coach admitted practice in general wasn’t as crisp as he would have liked.
“This is the best I’ve seen Jonas play,” Casey said. “Not only numbers but awareness, alertness, his ball-handling. And I say that today but everyone had a bad day, we (were) throwing the ball over Biosteel. He has done an excellent job of reading and that’s what we’re doing a little bit different is lot of read and react, very few calls and he’s done an excellent job of adjusting and handling the basketball when he’s at the top.”
Valanciunas said just having that kind of responsibility tends to make him quicker to act.
“I feel quicker,” he said. “But some of that is mind set too. When you get involved and start thinking like a point guard then you think quicker and then you act quicker right? That’s my opinion.”
This past summer Valanciunas had visits by both assistant coach Jim Sann and Raptors 905 athletic trainer Giovanni Sardella to his native Lithuania. Unfortunately Sann, who was only there three days arrived on the same day Valanciunas and his wife welcomed their second child into the world.
“We had a quick chat,” Valanciunas said. Sardella also came over for a brief visit but the workouts and programs the team wanted Valanciunas following were done in conjunction with his own personal coach.
“It’s the 21st century,” Valanciunas said. “You can call or get an e-mail and a package with a workout and you can do anything. There’s a lot of good coaches in Lithuania too and I had a good one and worked with him.”
Valanciunas put the work in this summer and it’s showing on the court.
And as for that so-called slow death march of the NBA big man perhaps that should be amended to the slow death march of the slow NBA big man.
Valanciunas doesn’t consider himself among that group of NBA centers.
BY MIKE GANTER, TORONTO SUN