Within a sports landscape that relies upon defined labels and instant performance analysis, Jonas Valanciunas confounds. Through three NBA seasons, he has revealed himself as neither boom nor bust, putting forth numbers (10.9 points, 8.0 rebounds per game) that point to a solid contributor who hasn’t announced himself as a star but also hasn’t been a disappointment.
So what do you do with a 23-year-old who still has yet to take a career-defining step in either direction, but one who is nearing the end of his rookie contract? Masai Ujiri and the Toronto Raptors have answered that question with reports of a new, four-year, $60 million contract extension set to kick in ahead of the 2016-17 season.
On the surface, the contract looks like a masterstroke for the club. If the reported terms are correct, the Raps have locked up a young talent at a premium position for what appears to be well under market value, particularly with new NBA economics in mind. The easy comparable among NBA centers is Enes Kanter, who was signed to a four-year, $70 million offer sheet by the Portland Trail Blazers that was then matched by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Of the two 23-year-olds, Valanciunas has better career scoring numbers, better rebounding numbers and boasts a far superior defensive presence to Kanter, who will earn more over the course of the respective deals.
Another interesting comparison for Valanciunas’ new contract is a more internal one. Back in early July, DeMarre Carroll signed on for identical terms in both length and value, making him the Raptors’ highest paid player. Once JV’s new deal kicks in, they will both be $15 million men, which doesn’t seem to be a perfect fit within a team hierarchy that features Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan as the top dogs. Lowry remains signed for three more years, while DeRozan will almost certainly test the potentially lucrative free agent market a year from now. Valanciunas and Carroll are difficult to compare given their very different roles and positions, but it’s reasonable to believe that paying JV $15 million at age 26 in three years will seem far more palatable than paying Carroll the same at age 32.
First and foremost, though, this deal is about banking on Valanciunas. In getting an extension done now rather than waiting until next summer, Ujiri and the Raps may well have saved themselves significant money. The Lithuanian big man was poised to accept a max contract offer sheet of four yours and $80 million from any NBA team that Toronto would have been hard pressed not to match. Now, the Raps get to enjoy the early stages of JV’s prime years at an annual average value of $15 million which was reasonable in the old NBA and may be downright frugal in the new one.
Looking ahead to next season, when the 11% salary cap increase of this past summer may be dwarfed by another surge, Valanciunas’ considerable raise from the $4.66 million he’ll earn this season will still be easily absorbed into the available cap space. As we come towards the end of an off-season that has netted Ujiri and the Raps mixed reviews, they seem to be closing out team activity on a very positive note.