Jonas Valanciunas and the San Antonio Spurs were a “thing” even before he was in the NBA. In 2011, the Spurs tried to trade up in the draft to take the seven-foot Lithuanian. On Nov. 25, 2012, Valanciunas scored 22 points against the Spurs in a double-overtime loss (his nine field goals remain a career high), and on the way to the locker-room he received a quiet pat and nod from Tim Duncan.
Tuesday night, in the Toronto Raptors’ first home game since a big seven-player deal, Valanciunas looked poised to write a new chapter in his short history: hook shots, jumpers, tip-ins … Folks had barely taken their seats and he had 10 points.
Accent on the word “looked,” as it turns out. It remains to be seen whether Valanciunas and point guards Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez – the most eagerly anticipated of the four players acquired from the Sacramento Kings in the Rudy Gay trade – can also become a “thing.” Though he started well on Tuesday night, Valanciunas subsequently spent three quarters either looking lost or sitting on the bench, while the Spurs (16-4) shot 54.9 per-cent from the field and hit on 13 of 22 three-pointers to hand the 7-13 Raptors a 116-103 loss at the Air Canada Centre.
That is concerning because, as much as the dispatching of Gay figures to increase chances for DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross (the latter made his first start of the season against the Spurs), it is the development of Valanciunas that quickly emerges as a focal point whenever general manager Masai Ujiri or head coach Dwane Casey talk about the deal. Ujiri understands how important Valanciunas can be to the rebuild of a Toronto roster that has many holes. “Big man with potential” is one of the few essential items beside which Ujiri can put a check mark.
Valanciunas was a force in the opening minutes, scoring 10 of the Raptors 24 first-quarter points and making all five attempted field goals, flipping in a hook over Duncan after an up-fake, and taking a Lowry pass at the chest, backing down Duncan before turning around and hitting a short jumper. By the time the game was six minutes old, DeRozan and Lowry had combined for seven assists.
But Valanciunas spent the final 6:40 of the first half on the bench after two quick turnovers, and the Spurs came back from a 43-42 deficit to lead 59-53 at the half. Valanciunas didn’t score another point until making two free throws and throwing down a dunk with less than two minutes remaining.
The Raptors, who were without Tyler Hansbrough due to a shoulder sprain, had just 10 players in uniform against San Antonio because the four newcomers haven’t arrived yet. Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes were making their way from Sacramento; Vasquez, a Venezuelan who played at the University of Maryland, had to stop off in New York City to get his work papers at the Canadian consulate general. He will be the backup point guard, but if Ujiri succeeds in moving Lowry, Vasquez will be handed the keys to the team.
Oddly, Casey compares Vasquez to Jose Calderon, who was dealt away by Bryan Colangelo in the three-way trade that brought Gay to Toronto. “He’s Jose-like,” Casey said of Vasquez. “He’s a pick-and-roll guy – an excellent passer with a high basketball IQ.”
That is a part of Lowry’s game that was not present with Gay on the court, because Gay shot first and thought about passing later. Ujiri talked on Monday about how Gay messed up the on-court chemistry of the team. Casey was a little more deft, referring to the “fit” between DeRozan and Gay as being “a little different.”
To his credit, DeRozan told reporters before Tuesday’s game that he and Gay “would have figured it out.” But he didn’t find any takers because, just when it looks like the Raptors are starting to figure things out, reality sets in. That, too, is a “thing,” which is why Ujiri can’t stop the tear down.