By RACHEL BRADY
Friday, March 9, 2018
TORONTO -- With a healthy lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Toronto's meaningless final game of the 2016-17 regular season, Kyle Lowry received a pass from his right side as he rolled to the basket late in the second quarter. Rather than laying it up himself, Lowry tossed a no-look backward pass over his left shoulder toward the top of the key, where the Raptors' big man, Jonas Valanciunas, was waiting.
At the time, this was an unusual place for Valanciunas to be positioned, unless he was setting a screen. He was more typically seen closer to the basket, making moves in the post, protecting the room or grabbing rebounds. But on this play, he loitered much farther out.
As the ball came to him, Valanciunas took one step back beyond the three-point arc and brought the ball to his chest. Cleveland's Richard Jefferson hung back in the key, reluctant to rush out and jump up at a seven-foot, 265-pound player who would surely pass the ball, or put it on the floor and power it into the paint.
But instead, Valanciunas let it fly. Jefferson made a last-ditch leap at him with arms outstretched, but the Lithuanian's first career three fell through the mesh with a perfect swish.
Valanciunas flung his arms into the air in celebration, three fingers unfurled on both hands, while the Raptors bench erupted in boyish delight. The Cavaliers promptly called a timeout, and deliriously happy Toronto teammates spilled onto the floor to slap Valanciunas on the back and bombard him with hugs, high fives and chest bumps.
"It's the new-wave JV!" hollered play-by-play man Matt Devlin on the TSN TV broadcast, as he and colour analyst Jack Armstrong both laughed uproariously. "Watch out next season; he's gonna be shootin' 'em all day, all night!"
The broadcasters were being cheeky, but it turns out their forecast wasn't as farcical as it sounded.
Valanciunas, who made only a single three-point shot in his first five NBA seasons combined, has already knocked down 25 this season. Lately, it's not unusual to see him make two a game. One of Devlin's catch phrases has even caught on to T-shirts: "Death, Taxes and JV 3's".
Nearly every time he hits one, teammates and fans react with giddy amusement. The very glimpse of him eyeing the basket from deep sends the Air Canada Centre crowd into a roar.
The Raptors, 47-17, are in first place in the Eastern Conference. Valanciunas's new skill at firing from deep fits the team's new ball-moving, three-pointheavy style.
Across the league, the large men who were once expected to stick to the paint with their backs to the basket are vanishing. They are evolving into (or being replaced with) more athletic players who can step back and knock down the three. They're also expected to dash out beyond the key to stop opposing long-range shooters.
The evolution of Valanciunas follows that of many of the NBA's top centres.
DeMarcus Cousins, Brook Lopez and Marc Gasol, who rarely shot the three-ball during their first several years in the league, now attempt between four and six each game, shooting hundreds in competition each season.
There have been similarly dramatic increases for countless bigs in recent seasons, from Anthony Davis to Al Horford, while young superstars such as Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns have come into the league already proficient at shooting threes.
NBA centres made 1,479 threepointers in the 2016-17 season, according to Basketball Reference, more than double the number in the 2015-16 season and more than the past four years combined.
It's a dramatic evolution from the days when Shaquille O'Neal was the league's dominant big man. Over his 20 NBA seasons, the 15-time all-star and four-time NBA champ was one-for-22 from three-point land.
Valanciunas isn't hunting for three-point shots, nor is he taking undue risks from distance.
He knows his specialty is hauling in rebounds and scoring in the paint. But after putting up thousands of practice threes over the past year, Valanciunas can identify the ideal moments to let them fly, and the Raptors have given him the green light to do so.
Statistically, Valanciunas has at times this season shot upward of 48 per cent from three-point range (he's currently shooting 43 per cent). Over one stretch in February, he hit 12 three-pointers in 10 games - good for eighth among all NBA centres during that period.
While he is seeing results now, Valanciunas and the Raptors coaching staff hatched the plan to improve his three-point game more than a year ago. He says on most non-game days, he tries to put up at least 100 three-point shots, usually under the watchful eye of Raptors assistant coach Nick Nurse, often before the team's practice begins.
"I work a lot with Nick. I've talked a lot with Nick about where to find the spacing. Where do I need to be to get the best shots?" said Valanciunas, as Nurse motioned to him from across the gym to come take more shots. "We watch a lot of film on that, finding the spots where I can sneak one or two in a game."
Increasing foot speed has been a constant focus for Valanciunas.
In recent months, he's showing he can quickly react to what his defender does - shooting from distance or going to the hoop. He's finding three-point opportunities by taking what the defence gives him - finding himself open after setting a screen or handing the ball off. If he sees the lane packed, he won't roll to the basket, but instead step back beyond the three-point line.
"In these kind of situations, you've just got to make the play - it's basketball reading," Valanciunas said. "If he's closing out, you can pump fake him. If he's not closing out, you can shoot. Both scenarios are fine by me."
Against Memphis last month, Valanciunas was able to get Gasol to bite on a pump fake, and then the Raptor drove for the hoop.
Toronto coach Dwane Casey later called it "pulling a Gasol on Gasol."
"I think you'll eventually see Jonas coming down the floor and able to handle the ball more, maybe take the ball out of bounds for us some. ... The more he hits them, the more confident he'll become, and then, too, you'll see him making other plays and gaining confidence in other parts of his game, like his defence or passing the ball or making plays off the dribble or back door," Casey said. "The maturity of Jonas is huge - it's a lot of things - he's a father of two kids now, he doesn't hang out as much any more. It's what we wanted to see happen three years ago, just now coming to fruition."
Many defenders still hang back in the key and refuse to bite when Valanciunas pulls up to shoot from distance. Others are respecting the fact that he's now making a healthy number of those, and they're adjusting accordingly.
"Their starters have all gotten better; they have all added to their games," Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said when his team visited Toronto last month.
"Valanciunas is shooting the three, especially the way he's shooting it lately, and his ability to put the ball on the floor if you bite on that fake. He's always been a great post-up player and rebounder."
In February, Valanciunas hit 10 of his 20 attempts. He's averaging 12 points and 8.3 rebounds a game and has 19 double-doubles this season. He's also being used more in late-game situations than he was in the past.
"I mean, I understand my role and I know what I'm doing and I'm not a selfish player who is going to jack up threes whenever," Valanciunas said. "We're strong because we share the ball and we run together. I'm not out there playing alone. I understand my spacing and where I can get the threes, and that's what I do."
Toronto Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas celebrates a basket during the first quarter against the Charlotte Hornets at Air Canada Centre last Sunday. Valanciunas, who made only a single three-point shot in his first five NBA seasons combined, has already knocked down 25 in 2017-18.
NICK TURCHIARO/USA TODAY SPORTS
Jonas Valanciunas, seen in a 2014 game, has shown recently that he can quickly react to what his defender does, whether that means shooting from a distance or going to the hoop.
HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES