SALT LAKE CITY - It appears very likely that when the Raptors take the court Friday against the Utah Jazz they will do so for the first time this season without Jonas Valanciunas in the starting five.
Valanciunas is learning -- as teammate Ed Davis pointed out -- at or above the expected rate.
But the Raptors’ ability to protect their paint has reached crisis proportions and while it's certainly not all on the young Lithuanian rookie, the likely move will see Valanciunas move to the bench and Amir Johnson start.
Now this will certainly not appease those who want Andrea Bargnani either ousted from the starting five or moved all together, but something had to change and this is the way the organization appears to be leaning.
Head coach Dwane Casey contends, as he did following the Raptors' loss in Sacramento on Wednesday, that he needs Bargnani on the floor even when he's having an off night if for no other reason than to keep opposing defences honest.
Bargnani playing out at the three-point line means an opposing big can't be standing alongside the other big packing the paint and literally forming a wall against any penetration.
Here's how Casey explained it on Wednesday when the issue of going back to an effective Davis rather than sticking with Bargnani late was raised: "Going back to him, yeah I (thought about it). But we needed spacing for Kyle to get to the bucket and Andrea spaced the floor for us. It gives us another three-point shooter but again it spaced the floor for Kyle to get into the paint because he had it going."
Lowry almost single-handedly got the Raptors the win in the second half Wednesday, scoring 29 of his team-high 34 points. Casey believes that would not have been possible without Bargnani on the floor occupying one of the Kings' bigs, thereby freeing up lanes for Lowry to do his damage.
As for Valanciunas, he's more victim than cause for this changing of the guard.
The rookie centre has made progress and developed just about every night he has taken the floor, but the one part of his game that has been slower to come is the ability to anticipate when he needs to make the move from his own man and slide over and help on the attacking guard or forward coming down the lane.
It's a skill that is mastered only over time, and in time Valanciunas will get there. But at 4-15 and with the Raptors getting killed in the paint on a regular basis, it's highly unlikely the Raps will live with the current situation much longer.
Johnson, with seven years of NBA action under his belt, has this down a little more and that's why he is expected to make the move into the starting lineup.
Casey explained Valanciunas' struggles with that very concept at shootaround on Wednesday when asked where exactly he needs to make the next step.
"His is quick help," Casey said. "He's got to get there quicker to help. Reading what's coming, anticipating is the word I want to use, because right now he's so in tune with being physical with his guy, making sure he's not letting him duck in that in that one split second he's got to be ready. Amir does a good job of it, Eddie does a good job, Aaron Gray does a good job, bounce and go.
"You have to go protect the paint and he's about a half second off of that, being where he has to be," Casey said. "It's experience and being there numerous times, he's getting better at it but he's still not there yet. Recognizing that situation and it's a split moment."
About ten hours later, having watched the Kings torch Toronto's interior defence for a shocking 56 points, Casey for the first time all season hinted he was considering changes.
Confirmation of that likely won't come, if it comes at all, until game time on Friday in Utah. There's no point in letting the opposition know your plans in advance.
But it appears the time has come that something had to change and, for better or worse, it appears the promising rookie is the one who is going to pay the price.
The mistake would be to view this as a critique of Valanciunas and his progress.
It's not so much a criticism of his play as it is the admission that they can no longer afford to live with the uncertainties that come with youth.
Davis, for one, knows it's only a matter of time before Valanciunas is making that split-second decision like it was as natural as putting one foot in front of the other.
"JV? He's going to be good, man. He's going to be real good," Davis said. "He's young, he's like 20. He can't even drink yet. He's going to learn."
For at least the next little while, it appears that learning is going to come with the second unit .