Raptors push Jonas Valanciunas to become elite rim protector

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Last season’s story of the Raptors rise to 48 victories and winning the Atlantic Division focused on the career year of Kyle Lowry and the improved Raptors offense. With good reason. However, there was another key factor:

The Raptors were ninth in the league in defense (based on points allowed per possession). That was way up from a bottom 10 performance the season before.

If the Raptors are going to repeat or improve on last season’s finish and get out of the first round of the playoffs this time around, that defense has to be better than it was. And that has to start in the paint. A Raptors coach told Eric Koreen of the National Post that only happens if Jonas Valanciunas picks up his game.

“One of the big focuses for us to advance in the playoffs is that he’s got to be the best rim protector — block shots, [legal] vertical [jumps] and being able to get over to that weak side early on any [dribble] penetration,” said Bill Bayno, the Raptors assistant coach who has worked extensively with Valanciunas. “At times he was great at it last year. … But we want it every night, 82 games.”

In case you need “best” clarified…

“Best in the league,” Bayno clarifies. “We want him to be No. 1 in the NBA. We want that as a goal. Right now, [Pacers centre Roy] Hibbert is the best. We want him chasing Hibbert. If he comes up a little short, hopefully he’s going to be elite, one of the top five in the league.”

To be clear, the Raptors were 3.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Valanciunas sat down last season — their defense improved in spite of their starting center. It’s not like Valanciunas is anywhere close to Hibbert. Or Marc Gasol. Or Dwight Howard. Or any of the elite defensive big men in the NBA. He’s not even the best help defending big on his own team (that’s Amir Johnson). Valanciunas has a lot of work to do.

Toronto’s system calls for its perimeter defenders to really chase guys off the three point line. Which is a good strategy, but you can’t then just let them waltz into the paint and score, you need to have an intimidating force in there that has those players settling for midrange jumpers.

Valanciunas has to become that guy for Toronto. It’s something to watch. Toronto has a real chance to win their division again (the Nets are the only likely threat to them in the Atlantic) and have home court in the first round. But the goal is to take the next step and Valanciunas is at the heart of those plans.