Jonas Valanciunas and Joakim Noah

Raptors coach Dwane Casey was on Prime Time Sports yesterday to talk about the season and his thoughts about the Raptors’ savior, Jonas Valanciunas. He said pretty much what you’d expect about Andrea Bargnani — that he’s impressed by his scoring and his ability to play defense when motivated, but that “he’s gotta do a better job of going after rebounds” — and he had encouraging words for Jose Calderon and DeMar DeRozan. But his money quote was his response to a question about Jonas Valanciunas’ potential:

“I saw him last summer with the Lithuanian national team and the Euro games in the championships — big-time energy, runs the floor, rebounds. At the worst, we’re getting a Joakim Noah from Chicago — a guy who mans the middle, challenged a little bit in terms of scoring in the paint but as far as of pick-and-rolling to the basket, he has great hands to roll and finish. He hasn’t developed that consistent outside jumpshot at the elbows yet, but something that you can’t teach — and I do know that it’s an NBA skill — is each every time he walks on the floor, he’s gonna hit people, he’s gonna play with energy, he’s gonna play hard, he’s gonna bring an energy to the court that is an NBA skill. And being seven-foot, that’s a plus when you can have your big man with that type of energy and that type of aggression.”

Clearly, Casey sees the same things many of us have witnessed over the past 10 months. I’ve tended to waver between comparing him to Noah and Tyson Chandler, but with the potential for more offensive polish than both of them. I don’t think Valanciunas has Noah’s ball-handling or passing skills yet, and he’s definitely not the defensive force that Chandler is, but the comparisons are far from a reach.

In terms of when we can expect Jonas to take over the starting center role for this team, Casey referred to his old-school values when it comes to young players needing to earn their spot in the starting lineup:

“At some point… Now to say that he’s gonna come in here and take over the starting position early — I want him to earn it… Someday, he’s gonna be our starting center — I don’t know if Day One, I don’t know if Aaron Gray — hopefully, Aaron Gray, we’ll re-sign him as a free agent, or Amir Johnson playing the five, those guys may start out that way. But sooner or later, he’s got the talent and skill and ability to be our starting center. And I hope that he’s improved and he keeps on working this summer so when he comes in, he just kicks everybody’s butt, and takes over the starting center position and keeps it from Day One. But in reality, he’s probably going to be backing up one of our guys until he earns it and until he learns the nuances of the NBA.”

It’s worth noting that Casey seems to want unrestricted free agent Aaron “White Panther” Gray to return next season, and I definitely wouldn’t have a problem with that as long as he’s relegated to a backup role no later than midway through next season — assuming that Jonas doesn’t get hurt or show up to training camp in Andray Blatche condition. Gray was the Raptors’ best rebounder this season and he seems like a decent teammate. As a placeholder while Jonas acclimates to the NBA, you could do a lot worse.