Amoose-Boucher: Raptors have tasty options to survive Jonas Valanciunas' absence (2024)

The Raptors learned Thursday that they will be without Jonas Valanciunas for at least four weeks.

Valanciunas dislocated his left thumb, or rather had it dislocated for him by Draymond Green, in the first half of Wednesday’s raucous win over the Golden State Warriors, and initial fears were more or less met with the updated timeline. Thumb dislocations are hard to peg down given the lack of detail in that description, with timelines varying based on the amount of ligament damage done. That Valanciunas required surgery and will need to be in a cast for four weeks before being re-evaluated points to him being out of the lineup well into January and missing 15 games on the optimistic end.


This is, quite obviously, a tough break. Despite a role coming off the bench more often and playing fewer minutes, Valanciunas was having arguably the best season of his career. He was averaging career-bests in points, rebounds, assists, steals and win shares per-36 minutes, posting a career-high true shooting percentage on career-high usage with a career-low turnover rate, owned the second-best defensive rating of any rotation regular and had the best defensive field-goal percentage at the rim among players with 100 or more shots defended there (that metric can be noisy but still has descriptive value).

This is where the depth the Raptors built comes into play. Remember how big a luxury it seemed to sign Greg Monroe as a third centreand land Chris Boucher on a two-way deal this offseason? Well, that’s mattered very little to date and is about to become significant. And those aren’t the only options the Raptors have available to them to help soak up Valanciunas’ 19 minutes, either.

More MaFuzzy Man

Serge Ibaka is playing the fewest minutes he’s played since 2011-12 working as Valanciunas’ platoon-mate. Considering he’s having a career year of his own in some ways, pushing Ibaka from 27.4 minutes just north of 30 might be something the Raptors are willing to consider. Ibaka’s played over 30 minutes nine times this year and the Raptors only have a pair of back-to-backs in the next four weeks.

This move would seem a little short-sighted, though. He can certainly do it some nights, and he figures to start every game now that Valanciunas is sidelined, but the Raptors aren’t in a position where they need to overextend anyone to make up for a moderate-term absence. Ibaka is 29 and has occasionally received rest nights to deal with general knee soreness the last two seasons while, until this year, struggling on back-to-backs. It wouldn’t make sense to task him with too heavy a minutes load and risk thinning the frontcourt out further. You could also argue that Ibaka’s minutes have been more strenuous this year than in years past, given that he’s playing centre full-time and posting a career-high usage rate. He’s doing plenty even in a platoon.

The Raptors are going to feature Ibaka heavily, as they have been. He’s having a borderline All-Star season. Overexerting him seems unnecessary, even if his play might warrant a few more minutes.

Spicy small-ball lineups

The Raptors have been hoping to get more looks at smaller lineups where Pascal Siakam would be the nominal centre. It’s not urgent — Siakam said a few weeks into the year that the team hadn’t even aligned like that in practice yet — but finding out just how tenable such a fast, switchy small-ball group might be and in what situations they might be helpful could be fruitful for the playoffs. Now seems something of a perfect time to find these groups more minutes.

As I’ve noted here before, I’m notquite as eager as a lot of NBA Twitter seems to be for this particular format. I don’t think it will be bad, it’s just that one of the Raptors’ greatest strengths is their ability to maintain versatility on the court with great positional size, and Ibaka (or even Valanciunas) can fit that ideal. Still, the idea of five truly interchangeable parts — Siakam is in a group with only Draymond Green so far this year for plus defenders spending 10 per cent of their defensive possessions at four different positions, per data provided by Krishna Narsu— is fun and potentially useful, so it’s worth exploring.

A warning: It hasn’t gone super well so far in a very small sample. In 25 minutes without a centre on the floor, the Raptors have been outscored by 35.6 points per 100 possessions. Most recently, it was moderately successful in a comeback against the Nets and then fell short in overtime and then was a slight negative in a quick look against the Bucks. There may be some bumps figuring these looks out, both in terms of Siakam’s shifted role as the de facto rim-protector and in terms of communicating what would likely be a hyper-switchy approach.

Siakam has been the centre for 21 of those minutes and the other four saw OG Anunoby at the five in garbage time. Most of these lineups will probably have Anunoby alongside Siakam in some way, and the most interesting versions also include Kawhi Leonard. If Leonard’s not in the mix, these groups are really going to struggle to rebound, and the switchability may not make up for the lack of rim protection and ability to prevent second-chance points. The most interesting version at a key juncture in the game is probably Leonard, Anunoby and Siakam with Kyle Lowry and Danny Green.


Get ready for some glimpses of these groups. Don’t be surprised if they look incredible on defence and dangerous in transition, but likewise don’t be surprised if there are some tough moments on the glass or bumps on the path to chemistry.

I finally learn how to draw a Moose

Every time Greg Monroe has checked into a game this year, I’ve drawn a moose. It’s his nickname and I’m an idiot with weird shorthand notes. It just made sense the first few times he came in. Those were garbage-time appearances, though, and I’m not sure I’m ready to craft a moose every game. I really didn’t think this gimmick through.

There’s going to be a lot more Monroe from here. Landing him at the minimum as a third centre in the summer was a tremendous piece of work by the Raptors, as the 28-year-old is still a capable NBA centre and is only two seasons removed from being a matchup nightmare opposite this team as a member of the Bucks. Toronto has only called on him for 95 minutes this year, and it’s a testament to his professionalismthat he’s embraced that role and played well within it.

To wit, Monroe is averaging 18.2 points and 15.5 rebounds per 36 minutes despite the sporadic play. While his true-shooting percentage and assist percentage are well below his norms, he’s still made a positive impact. That’s been especially true on the defensive glass, the Raptors’ most glaring weakness with Valanciunas down — Toronto grabs 78.5 per cent of potential defensive rebounds with Monroe on the floor, best of any player on the main NBA roster.

Monroe does other things well, too, and the Raptors were clearly prepared for this eventuality in how they used Monroe on Wednesday. Monroe doesn’t possess a ton of roll gravity but he is a solid post-up scorer and an excellent passer from the block or from the elbows, and Toronto will likely tweak how they use the centre role in the offence to better leverage those skills versus Valanciunas’ roll threat or Ibaka’s pick-and-pop ability (Monroe is a solid mid-range shooter, too). Defensively, Monroe is a little limited in terms of speed and agility, but he’s smart and can execute the Raptors’ more conservative drop-back principles against reserve pick-and-roll combinations. The rim protection numbers won’t be the top-five marks they are for Valanciunas and Ibaka, but if Monroe is deployed selectively, he might be able to make up for it with his work on the glass.

Even as somewhat of a one-way player, Monroe is a really nice piece to be able to slide into a 15-minute backup slot in an emergency.

Amoose-Boucher: Raptors have tasty options to survive Jonas Valanciunas' absence (1)

Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Boucher Hive: The Rising

At this point I feel like a bit of a broken record about Chris Boucher on Twitter. Every night, it seems I’ve got an update about a new Raptors 905 record he’s threatening or setting. Like on Wednesday, when he obliterated the 905 franchise record for scoring (sorry, Axel Toupane) and set a G League season-high with 47 points. He also nearly notched a triple-double in that same game, with rebounds and blocks. He leads the G League in scoring and shot-blocking, the 905 are an unspeakable 21 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, and he’s been the G League MVP to date.


None of that necessarily means he can step into Valanciunas’ role just yet. There’s a reason Boucher is on a two-way contract, and I wrote about this sort-of conundrum in more detail last week: Boucher might be the best player in the G League, but there’s no need to rush him into NBA minutes since there’s still plenty for him to be developing. Valanciunas’ injury changes that accounting. Now, Boucher is needed for depth and will get to test himself and his growth against NBA competition.

This is both important for Boucher’s development and the entire point of two-way contracts from the team side. No, it wasn’t worth forcing Boucher an audition before. Now that there’s an injury, getting a look at him as extra depth represents a great opportunity. By my count, Boucher still has 37 NBA days left on his two-way deal, which should give the Raptors the runway they need to have an extra big on the depth chart duringmost of Valanciunas’ injury.

A possible complicating factor here might be the timing of Lorenzo Brown’s guarantee date in early January. Once that date passes, the Raptors would be eating a big luxury tax bill to waive him and sign a different 14th player, and adding any 15th player comes with a big tax cost as well. If Boucher is running low on NBA minutes and has either proven himself at the NBA level or at least shown well enough to warrant more time, the Raptors could conceivably convert him to an NBA contract, either as a 15th man or after waiving Brown. (They could then sign another two-way player in Boucher’s place.) This is probably getting a little too far ahead, but it’ll be in the back of the Raptors’ minds as the calendar flips. For us, we can wait and see how Boucher looks at the NBA level before growing too concerned.

Expectations should probably be kept reasonable here. Boucher hastorched G League competition, but he has not been perfect, especially on the defensive end. Again, I went much deeper on this in the piece linked above, but here’s a quick version.

Offensively, Boucher doesn’t have to change much. He’s fast and aggressive in transition, has a knack for offensive rebounds thanks to his explosiveness and second jump, he’s a solid rim-runner and he’s really taken to grabbing a defensive rebound and pushing, something G League teams have had no answer for. His usage will be far lower in the NBA, and his high efficiency in a heavy role bodes well for his efficiency in a more contained one. He’ll make mistakes from being overeager or being sped up, and he’ll make some really nice plays that make him look ready, too.

Things are iffier on defence, where Boucher is still largely a shot-blocker more than a complete defender. He’s improved his reads and positioning in the pick-and-roll and is a better defensive rebounder than you’d think with his frame, but he’s still susceptible to bullying in the post and needs to improve how he defends before the shot. The 905 are excited about how an NBA test could help expedite Boucher’s already impressive growth on that end for when he returns to them down the line.

At 25, it feels like there’s a bit of urgency with Boucher to prove it now. That’s notreally the case, given the nature of two-way deals and his window to still become an NBA rotation piece. Still, this will represent his first real NBA opportunity, and he’ll surely want to make a strong impression. He’s played primarily centre with the 905 and could see some time either in place of Monroe or alongside Ibaka, depending on how the Raptors view him at this moment in time and if they’re willing to slide Anunoby to the three a bit more often. This should be really fun, however it turns out. Boucher is an immensely interesting person and prospect.


A mix of everything

The honest answer is that the Raptors will probably try all of this depending on what the situation calls for. There will be matchups where Monroe is an obvious fit for the bulk of the backup minutes and matchups where it’s worth trying Boucher or Siakam. There will be other nights where someone is in foul trouble and requires a change in plan and maybe nights where the wings are thin enough to warrant playing two of these options together. A depth chart is fluid, and while Nurse’s edict to experiment a bit more hasn’t been quite as extreme as expected, losing the team’s most reliable rebounder and screen-setter is going to require some creativity.

It’s never good to lose a player of Valanciunas’ calibre. But the Raptors entered the season with underrated depth at the centre position and will get to measure it now. The potential takeaways — about Monroe’s utility, Siakam’s versatility and Boucher’s readiness — will at least provide an informational silver lining here. The Raptors will know a little more about their frontcourt depth ahead of the window where they could possibly look to fortify it, and there’s value in that.

(Top photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Amoose-Boucher: Raptors have tasty options to survive Jonas Valanciunas' absence (2024)
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