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Grizzled vets Jae Crowder, Jonas Valanciunas can help raise young Grizzlies

Jae Crowder and Jonas Valanciunas are ready to be the locker room leaders for this young squad.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies-Media Day Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Youth movements are fun, but you need grownups in the locker room.

You can’t just have a daycare of sub-23 year-old players that haven’t done anything in the league. We’ve seen veteran players help take a young core to new heights — i.e., JJ Redick in Philadelphia, Jimmy Butler in Minnesota, and Zach Randolph in Memphis. On the other hand, we’ve seen teams bring in veterans that just sit on the bench, and there’s no leap — post-Love Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings with Randolph, Vince Carter, and George Hill, then last year’s Phoenix Suns team.

New Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Zach Kleiman made it an objective to surround Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja Morant, and the rest of the young core with “high-character veterans.” In addition, he stressed at Monday’s media day that he wanted these veterans to help these young guys on the court, and not just be glued to the bench.

Insert Jonas Valanciunas and Jae Crowder. The former resembles a real-life grizzly bear, as he’s a bulldozer when attacking downhill or in the post, and he’s ruthlessly aggressive on the boards. The latter has the intangibles that’d be a hand-in-glove fit in “Grit ‘n’ Grind,” while possessing the skillset of a modern NBA forward — shoot 3’s, defend and play multiple positions, and put the ball on the floor to create plays.

Both players also want to help establish a winning culture for this talented young core.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies-Media Day Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Coach Taylor Jenkins has already penciled in Jonas Valanciunas as the starting center, and given his productive stint in Memphis after the Marc Gasol trade. In 19 games with the Grizzlies, Valanciunas averaged 19.9 points on 54.5 percent shooting from the field, 10.7 rebounds, and 2.2 assists in 27.7 minutes per game.

Entering free agency, re-signing Valanciunas was a legitimate debate among Grizz Nation. He was productive last year, but some people thought it was a “good stats, bad team” thing — even though he was arguably the third-best player on very good Toronto Raptors teams for the past several years. In addition, given Jaren Jackson Jr.’s positional fit at the 5, locking up Valanciunas for a long-term deal scared some people, because they didn’t know if it’d limit Jackson’s ceiling.

Within minutes of free agency, the Grizzlies locked up Jonas Valanciunas a 3-year, $45-million deal. His contract is a team-friendly deal, as the Grizzlies don’t have much money on the books beyond this year, and he’ll actually produce. In addition, we’ll be seeing him in the frontcourt alongside Jackson, and Valanciunas is confident that they’ll complement each other quite well — while also praising the 20 year-old’s greatness.

“He’s a great player,” Valanciunas said. “This summer, he worked a lot, and he’s going to be great. Our goal is to be the toughest frontcourt. You know, helping each other on defense, protecting each other, protecting the rim together, rebounding. That’s our strength, so that’s what we’re going to do.”

Jonas Valanciunas also provided excellent advice he hopes to pass down to the young players, as he was once that young guy to Demar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Serge Ibaka. He stressed that, both on and off the court, it’s not going to be easy.

“If you want to be good, it’s not going to be easy. It’s not enough to just play good. You got to believe you can win, learn how to win, and then know how to win. It comes with all the small details. How does this is or that situation … you know, that’s why you’re here. We’ve seen it more in some of the guys, so we’re going to help and share those moments.”

Jonas Valanciunas is going to be huge for Jaren Jackson Jr.’s development as a NBA big, primarily on the glass. And, it’s great to see a good player like Valanciunas, who’s in his prime, invest in these young players in hopes to guide them to big moments.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies-Media Day Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Jae Crowder came over to Memphis in the trade for Mike Conley, and the big question for some was, where he will go next. Kyle Korver, another veteran acquired in the deal, was shipped to Phoenix a few weeks shortly in an asset-accumulation package that brought a young reclamation project (Josh Jackson), a desired prospect (De’Anthony Melton), and draft compensation.

As the Grizzlies entered “asset season”, Crowder’s future here is uncertain, as we don’t know whether or not he’ll make it to the deadline. However, Crowder has come out and said that he wants to be in Memphis long-term, and that’s honestly great news.

Last season, in 80 games with Utah, Crowder averaged 11.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.7 assists, while shooting 33.1 percent from deep on 6.5 attempts/game. He fits the “pace-and-space” system Taylor Jenkins wants to build, as he’s a high-volume 3-point shooter that can defend multiple positions, play small-ball, and serve as a secondary playmaker.

He also adds toughness that often helps young players really blossom into winners, which is important as “building a winning culture” was a popular statement at media day. He’s looking forward to leading these young players and holding himself and everyone else accountable.

Being a leader is a role he’s taken on throughout his career. He’s had young players such as Donovan Mitchell and Jaylen Brown under his wing in a “little brother, big brother” type of deal.

Having some of the league’s bright young talent under his leadership is also a role — and situation — he relishes.

“It’s been cool to have guys like Donovan and Jaylen be my little brother...a big brother type deal…because it helps me keep sharp,” Crowder told Grizzly Bear Blues. “When I got those set of eyes on me, be watching each move, and how I operate off the court and on the court…It makes my job a little more interesting. It makes me be more locked in to what I’m supposed to do, and holding myself accountable, because I got younger guys looking up to me. In this situation, no different. Two young players who have a great promise will be looking up to me. They’re going to be looking at me, seeing how I work, see how I operate. It allows me to hold myself at a standard, a high standard, to be who I am, and it’s been fun.”

He, then, proceeded to praise the “amazing” talent of Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., and tell the media how he’s ready to grow with them and being accountable.

As we’re entering a season full of fresh faces, it’s fascinating to see one of Crowder’s caliber buy into this franchise and the young talent it possesses.

Jae Crowder and Jonas Valanciunas are the kinds of veterans you want around Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., as they’re impact players that carry a strong sense of professional.

They care about and buy into the process of building a winning culture, even if it means missing the playoffs for the next season or two. They know what it takes to build that winning culture as well. Valanciunas only missed the playoffs once in Toronto, and he played a pivotal role in huge playoff games. Crowder has bounced around frequently, as he started his career on a playoff-contending Dallas team, grew with Brad Stevens’ younger Boston teams, and served as a solid veteran player to the rising Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert in Utah.

Though neither of them have a ring on their resume, they know what it takes to get to the postseason and how hard it is to reach the top of the mountain.

It’s going to be fun as hell to see this young Memphis Grizzlies team grow this season and beyond, and I’m eager to see these grizzled veterans guide these young cubs to big moments.

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