Jonas Valanciunas' improvement is the key to Raptors' season

Jonas Valanciunas' improvement is the key to Raptors' season

The start of a new Toronto Raptors season is here, but it's an old question that still resonates strongest: what to make of Jonas Valanciunas?

When the Raptors take the court for their first regular season game Wednesday at home against the Pistons, head coach Dwane Casey has a pretty good idea what to expect from his roster. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are All-Star players in their primes with defined skill sets. Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph and, assuming health, DeMarre Carroll are going to play hard on both ends of the floor. The Raptors are no longer in a place where they have to rely on Terrence Ross in a significant way, but any contributions from the enigmatic swingman will be taken as a sweet bonus.

That leaves Valanciunas, whose role and presence looms even larger on the team after backup centre Bismack Biyombo left as a free agent. Entering his fifth season, the 24-year-old Valanciunas has made steady improvements in each of his first four years.

He's progressed as an offensive player, becoming increasingly efficient in post-ups and the pick-and-roll in somewhat limited opportunities as the offence revolves around Lowry and DeRozan. Defensively there are still issues, especially guarding against pick-and-rolls, which led to the defence-first Biyombo getting to play in certain crunch-time situations last season.

It doesn't help that the NBA as a whole has gone away from Valanciunas' type of player. The lumbering centre who requires touches in the low post and time to go to work simply isn't as valuable as 10 years ago. There's been a move to offences that move the ball around the perimeter and players, from small guard to big man, have to be able to take and make an open shot.

Yet all that said, and there's still the feeling Valanciunas is the key to Toronto continuing to build on the success they've had recently, making it to the playoffs the past three seasons. Part of that has to do with how Valanciunas has shown up in those playoff games, coming through with a number of monster performances. His play in the first round against Indiana and the second round against Miami, before suffering a sprained right ankle that kept him out eight games, was as good as he'd ever looked in a Raptors uniform. Meanwhile Lowry and DeRozan were inconsistent during that stretch, causing fans to clamour for Valanciunas to become the focal point of the offence.

Maybe that's why it feels like he could be on the cusp of something big. For that to happen this year, however, it's going to take trust and effort from man and team. Trust and effort from his teammates to get him the ball on offence and reap the benefits. And trust and effort in himself to take the steps needed to be a solid defender and for positive results to follow. They might not have much choice in the matter, either. Biyombo's replacements are Lucas Nogueira, who has 35 games of NBA experience to his name, and ninth-overall pick Jakob Poeltl, who obviously has zero.

It's not about what Valanciunas becomes anymore. It's about what he is. And what he is will determine just how good the Raptors can be this season and how far this current core can go in the future.

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Israel Fehr is a writer for Yahoo Canada Sports. Email him at israelfehr@yahoo.ca or follow him on Twitter. Follow @israelfehr