TORONTO - Jonas Valanciunas is not a franchise player.
In fact, there’s a good chance that no one selected in Thursday night’s NBA draft, with the probable exception of Kyrie Irving, will be.
But the Raptors better hope Valanciunas will eventually become, at the very least, a solid piece of the puzzle. A player who turns out to be a solid NBAer. A guy who, teamed up with the rest of the Raptor’s young roster, will help right this sinking ship.
Because the time has come.
The Raptors can’t afford any more missteps.
Toronto has proven to be a strong basketball market, but the trend the last few seasons has been troubling — and not just on the court.
Only the Leafs are immune from attendance swoons in Toronto. Every other team in this market suffers at the gate when they go in the tank.
It’s happened (dramatically) to the Blue Jays — a franchise that once set records for attendance in Major League Baseball. And it’s happening with the Raptors now. If the Raptors don’t start winning, they’ll find themselves facing the same crap the Blue Jays face at the start of every season — declining attendance becomes the story, and it drags everybody associated with the team down.
Raptors fans are as fervent as any in the NBA, if not more so than most. But Raptors fans are also starting to turn away. Attendance was down last season for the fourth straight season, dipping to an average 16,566 per game — the lowest average attendance in Toronto since 1997-98 and the second-lowest in franchise history. The season before, the Raptors averaged 17,897, that followed 18,773 during the 2008-09 campaign and 19,435 in 2007-08 — the last time the Raptors qualified for the post-season.
There’s no danger of the Raptors going the way of the Vancouver Grizzles, but the bleeding has to stop, otherwise this team will be in danger of becoming an after thought in T.O.
Quality free agents are nice (and hard to come by in Toronto) but success starts with the draft — even in so-called poor draft years, like 2011.
Club president/GM Bryan Colangelo seems to be on a roll with his draft picks the last two years, DeMar DeRozan (ninth overall) in 2009 and Ed Davis last season (13th). Before that, though, it’s been hit and miss with this team, largely miss, since Chris Bosh was selected fourth overall in 2003. In 2008, the Raps drafted Georgetown centre Roy Hibbert 17th but then traded him, along with a package including T.J. Ford, to Indiana for Jermaine O’Neal and the draft rights to Nathan Jawai. And that turned out to be a flameout.
Toronto did not have a first-round pick in 2007. In 2006, with their only first overall pick in history, the Raptors selected Andrea Bargnani — ahead of Brandon Roy (sixth overall), a three-time NBA all-star; LaMarcus Aldridge (second), who was an All-NBA Third Team selection last season; and Boston Celtics all-star point guard Rajon Rondo (21st), another all-star.
That pick is still hotly debated. The seven-foot Italian is a work in progress, and, indeed, new head coach Dwane Casey said earlier this week that Bargnani has Dirk Nowitzki qualities he hopes to develop.
Not all Toronto’s first-round picks have been misses — Bargnani, Chris Bosh, Tracy McGrady (ninth, 1997), Marcus Camby (second, 1986). But far too many have been blunders. For every Bosh and McGrady, there’s been a Rafael Araujo (eighth, 2004) and a Jonathan Bender (fifth).
For this team to regain its place of prominence on the Toronto sports landscape, the Raptors have to demonstrate that the team is on the right track, like the Blue Jays, though the Jays have the double burden of playing in a league without a salary cap, in a division with two free-spending teams in the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
There was a collective gasp in the Air Canada Centre media room Thursday night when the Raptors picked Valanciunas fifth overall.
But the media gets paid to second-guess. Colangelo gets paid to put a winning team on the floor. Hopefully, for the sake of basketball in Toronto, he found a diamond in Valanciunas.