Toronto Raptors' head coach Dwane Casey likes to tell centre Jonas Valanciunas that playing the low post is like dancing. And the team made sure the seven-footer got in lots of summertime practice on his footwork.
The Lithuanian big man worked with legendary NBA centre Hakeem Olajuwon on getting lighter on his feet in the paint, and he also trained with a running coach in Oregon.
Valanciunas took great strides in his first two NBA seasons, and this year, the Raptors are expecting even more improvement.
The last performance by Valanciunas in a Raptors uniform was disappointing. It was Game 7 of Toronto's first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets last spring, and he mustered just three points, five rebounds and registered a -23 plus-minus rating as the Raps lost a one-point heartbreaker and their season came to a screeching halt.
So, like several other NBA big men, he turned to Olajuwon. The Hall of Famer has become a highly regarded teacher, passing along the tactics and moves that earned him the moniker the Dream.
"With Jonas, we don't want him to get bulky, we want him to get more slimmed down and be more nimble," said Casey at Monday's media day as the team prepared to open training camp Tuesday. "He's been lighter on his feet. Playing in the post is just like dancing – you've got to have a rhythm and be light on your feet. "And if you saw JV's wedding video, you saw how he has to work with Hakeem a little bit more."
Casey identified rim protection as a major area where the Raptors need to improve this year to help defend their Atlantic Division title, go deeper into the playoffs and avoid any suggestion that their breakout 2013-14 season was a one-hit wonder. And the 230-pound Valanciunas is key to that improvement.
Valanciunas, now 22, also worked out at the University of Oregon with Jim Radcliffe, a renowned strength and conditioning coach who has helped many athletes improve their running technique and speed. The centre said Radcliffe helped him run in a more energy-efficient way.
Terrence Ross also went to work on his running with Radcliffe, hoping for a significant improvement to his game this season. But the biggest change in the 23-year-old small forward is 15 extra pounds of muscle, which Ross said he earned by "eating everything in sight and lifting weights as much as possible."