On Wednesday afternoon I sat down to write a piece about the probable end to the Andrea Bargnani era in Toronto. I worked through all of the usual bullet points - his draft status, the Nowitzki comparisons, his lack of defense and rebounding, his "13 Games" - while breaking down how destructive his tenure with the Raptors has been and how desperately the team needs to try and trade him this summer.
And then I stopped.
Roughly five paragraphs in I just stopped, leaned back and erased the whole thing. Who needs a retread of that story? What Raptors fan doesn't know, in excruciating detail, every heartbreaking beat of that saga? How much more attention can this episode in Toronto Raptors history really demand after seven regrettable years have been spent working through the exact same story arcs with the exact same conclusions? So I stopped.
I stopped because that isn't the story anymore. Bargnani isn't the story anymore. The "avulsion sprain" that knocked Bargnani out for the rest of the season effectively stopped the story from being about Bargnani ever again. The story now shifts to the beginning of a new era in Raptors basketball: The Jonas Valanciunas Era.
The "avulsion sprain" has thrust Valanciunas into a role of prominence in Toronto's rotation. Already a starter, Valanciunas has seen his minutes jump from 21 per game pre "avulsion sprain" to 33.6 post "avulsion sprain". His minutes with Amir Johnson (with whom he pairs in a terrifically strong defensive tandem) have gone from 10.0 per game on the season to 19.5 and the club finally looks interested in finding him on cuts to the basket and on post-up opportunities.
Of the members of Toronto's regular rotation, Valanciunas already sports the best rebounding percentage (15.5) and block percentage (4.0), he's got tremendous mobility on the defensive end and he doesn't back down from any player that he's faced in his rookie season.
He still makes a lot of mistakes out on the court, but the building blocks that are already in place are tremendously exciting.
While his stats hardly jump off of the page, that isn't particularly odd for a player like him in his first NBA season. Consider these year-one comparisons:
21.5 mpg, 7.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.1 bpg, .514 FG%, .745 FT%, 2.9 fpg
20.7 mpg, 6.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 0.9 bpg, .482 FG%, .691 FT%, 2.3 fpg
19.6 mpg, 6.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.3 bpg, .497 FG%, .604 FT%, 2.5 fpg
14.4 mpg, 7.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.1 bpg, .471 FG%, .667 FT%, 3.1 fpg
It's an old cliché that it takes big men a couple of years to really develop, and these All-Star centers prove that rule. In year one with guys like this, where they are facing big men who are stronger, faster and more mature then anyone they've previously faced, they will struggle to perform at a consistently high level. What you want out of guys like that, though, is effort, intensity and an eagerness to get better. Valanciunas hits all of those attributes easily, and now it's a matter of him putting in the work to take the next step in his career.
The fact is that with the financial state that the Raptors are currently in, Valanciunas IS the future of the team. Guys like DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Rudy Gay may find ways to blend with each other better, but for better or worse they are more or less who they are going to be as professionals going forward. Valanciunas, however, is only beginning to define who he is as an NBA player. He's learning how to anchor the back line of an NBA defense. He's learning how to get his shot off against NBA centers. He's learning how to play the right angles, make the right cuts and find the right timing and that learning process is far, far from over.
That's the story to track now, though. How Valanciunas develops, how he learns to become a linchpin in Toronto's defensive schemes. How his speed and precision in the pick-and-roll can become a bread-and-butter offensive play. It's no longer about whether or not Bargnani will finally 'get it', nor is it about if there is a coach out there that can extract the best out of his game while hiding the worst parts of it. The Raptors spent seven years walking that path and they ended up right back where they started when it was done: placing their faith into a seven-foot European import.
Valanciunas, though, is no Bargnani. He plays with the kind of energy and relentlessness that Bargnani was never able to consistently demonstrate. His eagerness to play defense, score around the basket and inspire his teammates with passion run in complete opposition to the way Bargnani approached the game. That's the player that Toronto gets to stand behind now; that's whose story is going to define the next generation of this basketball club.
When Bargnani is finally moved on in the offseason the ultimate obituary for his Raptors career can be written. For now, though, and for the rest of the season (and beyond) the story is about Valanciunas and the opportunity that has been granted him as a result of Bargnani's physical misfortune. The next chapter starts now, and it's up to Valanciunas and the Raptors to make it a more positive chapter than the last one.