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Jonas Valanciunas and the young Grizzlies: An odd pairing that somehow works

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https://theathletic.com/1808469/2020/05/13/jonas-valanciunas-and-the-young-grizzlies-an-odd-pairing-that-somehow-works/

At first glance, the new-look Memphis Grizzlies and Jonas Valanciunas might not seem to be a good fit. After all, the Grizzlies are all about young legs, running the floor and athletic play.

Valanciunas is all about a ground and pound, old-school, slower-paced game. The Grizzlies like to play with switchable, multi-positional players. Valanciunas is not switchable and is not multi-positional. He is very much a center — and only a center. The Grizzlies have a first-year coach and a first-year point guard, Valanciunas got along splendidly with the team’s former coach and the veteran point guard who was traded.

And yet somehow it works.

It works because each side has been willing to accommodate the other. Valanciunas deserves a lot of credit for growing his game and adapting in small ways to the new style. The Grizzlies, and coach Taylor Jenkins in particular, deserve credit for feeding Valanciunas on offense, especially when presented with a favorable matchup. Both sides have given a little, and it’s worked out well.

It would have been tempting for the Grizzlies to fast-track the team’s long-term development and play Jaren Jackson Jr. at center. Most observers expect that he’ll ultimately end up playing most of his minutes at the five, and Jackson better fits what the natural expectations of an uptempo, switchable team would want at the position. Yet the Grizzlies elected to bring Valanciunas back in the summer, paying him $45 million over three seasons, because they wanted the assurance of quality minutes and quality team play.

And did I mention quality rebounding? I certainly should have, because the Grizzlies would be a team completely bereft of board work without the big Lithuanian. Valanciunas loves to control the glass, and his ability to grab boards — especially on the defensive end — has been critical. When Valanciunas is on the floor, the opposition grabs 5.4 percent fewer offensive rebounds, per Cleaning the Glass, a mark that puts him among the top 10 in the league in that category. Also, the Grizzlies secure almost 5 percent more offensive rebounds when Valanciunas is on the court.

His 270-pound frame combines with elite timing to create easy scoring opportunities, as the Hawks found out in what would turn out to be the penultimate game of the Grizzlies season March 7:

Valanciunas is also a skilled offensive player who has willingly expanded key aspects of his game. He has always been a fantastic screen setter and roller in the pick-and-roll, and with Ja Morant and Tyus Jones at point guard, Valanciunas has routinely received the ball in great position down low and finished with ease, as the Lakers saw on Leap Day:

 

Those are things Valanciunas has always been able to do. But he added more to his repertoire over the course of the season. He shot 36.7 percent from the 3-point line this season on a career-high 1.3 attempts per game. He flirted with long-distance shooting a couple of years ago in Toronto, but Jenkins has pushed him out of his comfort zone and asked him to look for the shot more often. It hasn’t been natural, or easy, but doing so will make Valanciunas a more valuable offensive player.

Another crucial part of the Grizzlies system is passing. Everyone on the floor has to be willing and able to move the ball, and Valanciunas has improved dramatically in that area. Prior to arriving in Memphis, he averaged 0.7 assists per game for his career; in 81 games with the Grizzlies, he’s averaging 1.9 assists — a 270 percent increase. And as this season progressed, Valanciunas became more comfortable moving the ball. In November, when he was still figuring things out, he sometimes struggled to find Jackson in good positions:

Valanciunas seemed to struggle with the decision-making and timing needed to find Jackson in big-to-big passing situations. But he continued to work and continued to improve. In late January, Valanciunas had enough confidence to throw lobs like this one:

 

He’s not Morant, and never will be. He is, however, vastly improved in that area and can be counted on to move the ball as needed. His improvement in passing has allowed him to thrive while playing with his younger, more athletic teammates.

Whether in Toronto or Memphis, Valanciunas has typically been part of a center platoon. His minutes were dwindling in Toronto prior to being traded, partly because of a hand injury that had sidelined him and partly because the Raptors were playing smaller. And while his minutes have indeed increased in Memphis, there’s certainly an indication that Valanciunas offers his most value when his minutes are somewhat limited.

 

Peak Valanciunas

PLAYER

MINUTES

GRIZZLIES RECORD

 

Jonas Valanciunas

30+ minutes

5-4

 

Jonas Valanciunas

27-30 minutes

15-6

 

Jonas Valanciunas

Under 27 minutes

10-22

It’s an odd little sweet spot, but it’s the one the coaches like to see Valanciunas hit — right around 28 minutes. Valanciunas is not built to excel in high-minute situations, but by the same token, the Grizzlies need his rebounding and screening to be at their best. When he doesn’t play as much, they have tended to suffer.

Valanciunas is generally a very good defender and an excellent rim protector, but he can struggle against smaller bigs. Teams have, at times, gone to very small, shooting-oriented lineups in an attempt to force Valanciunas to defend out to the 3-point line. If those smaller lineups shoot well, the Grizzlies often cannot keep Valanciunas on the floor and pivot to a Jackson/Brandon Clarke or similar frontcourt pairing.

And, as you would expect, when the Grizzlies want to play smaller and quicker, Valanciunas is not part of those groups. While he has improved his 3-point shooting, he’s still not a willing shooter from deep, and his size and strength advantages aren’t nearly as impactful when he’s that far from the basket. When Valanciunas is standing on the perimeter, the Grizzlies’ vulnerabilities on the glass become more glaring.

Much like Nick Nurse did in Toronto, Jenkins has learned that Valanciunas is a perfect situational center. Play him in the right way — and with the right groupings — and he’s a phenomenal weapon, well worth his price tag. His steady, low-maintenance presence in the locker room has been a bonus, too. He’s easy to play with, and he has set a terrific example for his young teammates.

With two years left on his very reasonable contract, and with pure centers not in huge demand around the NBA, there is no reason to believe Valanciunas will be on the move anytime soon — especially because things in Memphis have been going so well for both parties.

In short, he’s been exactly as advertised. There was some concern that his outstanding performances during last season’s 19-game post-trade cameo might have been something of a mirage, but he has proved that was no fluke. He’s been the perfect player for a franchise in transition and has been a key reason why that transition has been successful sooner than anyone expected.

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Thanks for the article  I❤️JV. Also thanks for keeping this board alive (or at least on life support) with all your posts during the hiatus.

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On 5/15/2020 at 9:39 PM, GameOn said:

Thanks for the article  I❤️JV. Also thanks for keeping this board alive (or at least on life support) with all your posts during the hiatus.

I wanted to thank #IluvJV too.  Good stuff.  Wonder if we get a Grizzlies/Lakers playoff breakdown and a I ❤️ JV mock draft.

It sounds like the league wants to make a decision on coming back soon.  I wanna get some Grizzlies Basketball!

 

P.S. I think our team is a matchup problem for teams with out JV beast mode inside, Jaren at the 4 with Ja The Rock Star at point guard and a big wing in Dillon at the 2. Just an interesting team makeup that gives teams fits since we can win with our bigs or from our perimeter guys.  We can also default to the “Give the ball to Ja” offense.  

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Happy hes our center. Hes such a stud. 

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On 5/17/2020 at 9:08 PM, ALT GRIND said:

I wanted to thank #IluvJV too.  Good stuff.  Wonder if we get a Grizzlies/Lakers playoff breakdown and a I ❤️ JV mock draft.

It sounds like the league wants to make a decision on coming back soon.  I wanna get some Grizzlies Basketball!

 

P.S. I think our team is a matchup problem for teams with out JV beast mode inside, Jaren at the 4 with Ja The Rock Star at point guard and a big wing in Dillon at the 2. Just an interesting team makeup that gives teams fits since we can win with our bigs or from our perimeter guys.  We can also default to the “Give the ball to Ja” offense.  

Grizzlies/Lakers playoff breakdown...if LeBron and AD are both healthy we have maybe 5%  ...if AD is injured or getting COVID 19 ....its 50/50.....if LeBron is out we have 99%....LeBron was kicking JV's *** in the playoffs forever...best JV did against him was 2-4 in ECF....

Will post my mock draft before the draft.

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6 hours ago, I❤️JV said:

Grizzlies/Lakers playoff breakdown...if LeBron and AD are both healthy we have maybe 5%  ...if AD is injured or getting COVID 19 ....its 50/50.....if LeBron is out we have 99%....LeBron was kicking JV's *** in the playoffs forever...best JV did against him was 2-4 in ECF....

Will post my mock draft before the draft.

I think we could make a 5 game series interesting.  I still think we win a game (maybe two) in a seven game series.  If it goes 7 it is gonna be us vs. the refs.

The playoffs will show us where we are in the pecking order, what we need to improve on and what we need to add (in terms of personnel).

I will post another board after they figure all the lotto balls end up where they are supposed to.  I think 5-15 on my board will depend a bit on who picks where although I just usually do a flat out big board.  I might do a "mock" right after lottery night.  Maybe just a 1-14 mock draft based on where teams end up (then fit) but revert to my famous/infamous mother of all big boards (maybe a couple) right up to draft night.

This could be a deep draft so we should still have a few good players left to choose from, even at 40.

Generally, I would go with UPSIDE for top tier picks, then FIT for mid-range picks who could potentially be rotation players.  Finally, UTILITY for deep bench and G League/draft and stash players (late second round picks).  So, UFU would be the decision tree.  

Maybe I will do a POST-LOTTO MOCK DRAFT as well as a Grizz Draft Watch Moneyball Big Board (a brief run down of players we should look at in the 40ish range).

Between my boards and the JV boards (I wanna see more boards/mock drafts done by people who aren't adverse to big men.  So, the JV board should be really good.  I think it's a good big man draft).  

 

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It'll be hard for us to compete just because the makeup of the team has changed a lot. Justise is presumably starting, but he hasn't even played a game with us yet. So maybe you start Kyle instead. Jaren and Brandon are coming off injuries so they'll be even more rusty than everyone else. There will have to be some warm up games before they start. 

I just hope we get some basketball soon, and I'm pretty hopeful we will. 

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