Valan­ci­u­nas fo­cuses on foot­work

The Beacon Herald - - SPORTS - MIKE GANTER TORONTO SUN SUN FILES

Jonas Valan­ci­u­nas has heard all the talk about the role of the NBA cen­tre be­ing marginal­ized. He doesn’t buy it for a sec­ond. “Hell, no,” he says when that very topic of the po­ten­tial demise of the NBA big man is raised. “There are a lot of peo­ple who talk and I guess it’s their job to talk but our job is to make a bas­ket, make a good read. But those guys whose job is to talk, they have to cre­ate some­thing. Big guys are al­ways going to be there. You have to have some­one to re­bound the ball, to pro­tect the paint, and be a threat down low.”

But, Valan­ci­u­nas, now in his sixth year with the Raptors, is also aware the role of the big man is chang­ing, not so much down­sized as be­ing re­con­fig­ured and adapt­ing to those changes is some­thing that he and ev­ery cen­tre has to ac­cept. Valan­ci­u­nas is ea­gerly em­brac­ing these changes.

Valan­ci­u­nas will never be mis­taken for a guy who is su­per quick, but even from the end of last sea­son to this he has made sig­nif­i­cant progress in that depart­ment.

This past sum­mer he spent the bet­ter part of an en­tire month work­ing only on his foot­work to make him­self quicker.

“It was about mov­ing my feet bet­ter,” he said. “Be­ing able to close out. Be­ing able to stop the pick-and-roll and still get back to my man. We talked a lot with the coaches and we de­cided that was the fo­cus so we did prob­a­bly a full month just on foot­work.”

That was part of the change. The other part was his role within the of­fence and with Toronto’s of­fence un­der­go­ing a sub­stan­tial change, Valan­ci­u­nas’ re­spon­si­bil­i­ties have changed too.

He’s gone from a guy who plays within the of­fence to a guy who can dic­tate how it op­er­ates.

“I am much more in­volved in ev­ery­thing,” the Raptors 7-footer says. “I’m not talk­ing about scor­ing. It’s about mak­ing de­ci­sions and be­ing a part who is not just fol­low­ing the rules but some­one who can help cre­ate the of­fence, cre­ate open shots for any­body else who is on the court.”

If you’ve watched any of the Raptors pre-sea­son games to date, Valan­ci­u­nas spends a whole lot more time out at the top of the key with the ball in his hands these days than the a guy strictly re­ceiv­ing the ball in the paint and back­ing a de­fender down.

Valan­ci­u­nas is asked if his ex­panded role makes him feel at all like a point guard.

“I don’t feel like a point guard be­cause I have never seen a point guard as tall as me, but it’s not just about pass­ing ei­ther,” he said. “It’s not about mak­ing as­sists. It’s about mak­ing free moves. I mean you see DeMar (DeRozan) in the cor­ner, you go set a screen and he makes a layup. You are mak­ing de­ci­sions. You tell guys you go down and I go set a screen. What­ever. It’s not just mak­ing a bas­ket or mak­ing as­sists, it’s set­ting good screens and mak­ing good reads too.”

While he looks lighter on his feet, Valan­ci­u­nas says he weighs the same as he did last sea­son.

“I don’t know if I’m lighter but I know I lost body fat,” he said. “That was the goal. Get more mus­cle and lose fat but I think I equalled out. It’s not like I lost weight or gained weight but I do know I lost body fat.”

Head coach Dwane Casey, who is ad­mit­tedly more apt to be more free with the com­pli­ments this time of year, still sounded ex­tremely bullish on this year’s Valan­ci­u­nas even on a day when the coach ad­mit­ted prac­tice in gen­eral wasn’t as crisp as he would have liked.

“This is the best I’ve seen Jonas play,” Casey said. “Not only num­bers but aware­ness, alert­ness, his ball-han­dling ... He has done an ex­cel­lent job of read­ing and that’s what we’re do­ing a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent is lot of read and re­act, very few calls and he’s done an ex­cel­lent job of ad­just­ing and han­dling the bas­ket­ball when he’s at the top.”

Valan­ci­u­nas said just hav­ing that kind of re­spon­si­bil­ity tends to make him quicker to act.

“I feel quicker,” he said. “But some of that is mind set too. When you get in­volved and start think­ing like a point guard then you think quicker and then you act quicker right? That’s my opin­ion.”

This past sum­mer Valan­ci­u­nas had vis­its by both as­sis­tant coach Jim Sann and Raptors 905 ath­letic trainer Gio­vanni Sardella to his na­tive Lithua­nia. Un­for­tu­nately Sann, who was only there three days ar­rived on the same day Valan­ci­u­nas and his wife wel­comed their sec­ond child into the world.

JACK BOLAND/TORONTO

Toronto’s Jonas Valan­ci­u­nas dunks in this file photo. The cen­tre will play a big­ger role in the team’s of­fence this sea­son.

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