With Jonas Valanciunas’ pre-season debut out of the way, fans can now shift their attention from the question of “what will we see?” to “what are we seeing?” I think most reasonable people were content, if not impressed, with Valanciunas’ solid 13 minutes in Detroit on Wednesday night, particularly on the defensive end of the floor.

But there are surely others out there who simply looked at the boxscore, saw two points on 1-of-2 shooting and a couple of blocks and asked, “is this what all the hype was about?” That’s obviously unfair, and too simplistic of a view, but if you’re a casual fan who doesn’t necessarily care about the nuances of a sport outside of the numbers, I can see why you might have been disappointed with Valanciunas’ debut.

Nonetheless, I’m among those with the highest of expectations for Jonas (I think he’s a legitimate threat to be a top-five centre in the NBA within a few years, and a potential franchise centre at that), and even I don’t expect much statistically in his rookie season.

What I do expect, though, is to see some positives on the floor outside of the realm of numbers. So, heading into tonight’s rematch with the Pistons at the ACC and going forward, what should you be watching for in Jonas Valanciunas’ game?

- The most obvious thing that stood out to me on Wednesday was just how big and how long Valanciunas is on the court. His presence is noteworthy. At seven-feet and nearly 260 pounds, he’s a hulk of a man. But other than giving him a personal advantage, JV’s size significantly opens things up for his teammates. It’s something Dwane Casey has talked about before, and it was on great display on this DeMar DeRozan dunk.

Check out how crowded the lane looks when DeRozan gets the ball around the three-point line. Then watch how the paint suddenly opens up, particularly how Tayshaun Prince is taken out of the equation. It’s a subtle advantage that having a big man like Jonas brings, and it won’t ever show up in his own stats, but if he continues to clear the lane like this for his slashers, DeMar and others will have more space to create some highlights.

- When defending the pick-and-roll, watch how hard Valanciunas hedges to pressure the ball handler, and then how quickly and smoothly he gets back to cover his man, the roller. I see fewer and fewer big men able to do this effectively, but when a centre as quick as Valanciunas can do it, the opposing offence comes under a lot of pressure, and it could help the Raptors force some turnovers.

- I’ve mentioned it hundreds of times since the Raptors drafted him, but watch how crisp Valanciunas’ screens are, how hard he rolls to the basket after setting a pick, and how he makes himself noticeable (hands high) and ready to take a pass while rolling. He wasn’t rewarded with passes from teammates in his first game, but the more the Raptors’ guards and wings get used to playing with him, the more Jonas will reap the benefits of rolling hard with his hands up. It’s going to give him plenty pf opportunities for easy baskets and dunks, and should draw a fair share of fouls, too.

While the video cuts out his screen, Valanciunas’ first pre-season NBA basket is still a good example:

- Watch how solid his defensive positioning is. I was pleasantly surprised that Jonas was able to pick up a couple of blocks and alter a few more shots on Wednesday without committing more than one foul. Most of that just comes down to solid defensive positioning and principles.

- Lastly, watch how quickly Valanciunas runs the floor for a big man. It’s pretty freakish for a seven-footer, and will give him an advantage in transition over much slower and lazier big men. I’ve only ever seen it on television and on web clips, but I’m looking forward to catching a glimpse tonight in his home debut.

Valanciunas is eventually going to be counted on to put up numbers to go along with his sound fundamentals. But for now, if you’re trying to get a read on what to get excited about with a young centre who may not be filling the stat sheet just yet, watch for the things I pointed out. It’s not as exciting as seeing a big man record a double-double or destroy the rim, but these fundamentals are important in the development of a seven-footer, and will eventually result in more noticeable buckets, boards and blocks.

On the flip side, if you notice Valanciunas is suddenly straying away from these strengths, I’d be equally concerned. But given his reputable work ethic and desire to make an impact, I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that too often.


A reminder that I probably won’t have a “pre-season thoughts” post for tonight’s game, but I will have another post for you some time this weekend.

In the meantime, enjoy Valanciunas’ home debut, where I think we can expect a few extra minutes for the big man. I’ll also be especially interested in watching Andre Drummond, whose effort hasn’t exactly been as reputable in his pre-NBA career, but who looked very impressive in Detroit on Wednesday.