It is hard to believe it has been more than eight months since the Grizzlies traded Marc Gasol to the Toronto Raptors. At the time, it seemed like the deal that sent Gasol north of the was a fairly even deal in terms of value for Toronto and Memphis, as the Grizzlies acquired C.J. Miles, Delon Wright, Jonas Valanciunas, and a 2024 second rounder in return. However, it is very unlikely that neither the Grizzlies nor the Raptors realized how amazing the deal would work out for each side in the near future.
Obviously, the Raptors and their fans loved the move, as Gasol helped Toronto win its first NBA title in franchise history. For Memphis, the hope was that their return would net them a player or two that they could add to their future core. While at first it seemed Delon Wright was the prize of their package, it quickly became clear that Jonas Valanciunas was the talent and personality to invest in for Memphis’s inevitable rebuild.
Valanciunas invested his time and talent into making the most of his new role as a featured player in Memphis. As a result, the Grizzlies decided to invest $45M over the next three years into Valanciunas being a leader on and off the court for this young Grizzlies’ roster. The young yet talented core in Memphis made it clear they wanted Valanciunas to return, and it seems the feeling was mutual. With his future with the Grizzlies secured, the hope is that Valanciunas can experience a very successful prime of his career manning the middle for Memphis.
Overall, Valanciunas appeared in only 49 games last year for the Raptors and Grizzlies, as he dealt with two separate injuries. While he averaged 15.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks overall, his role and production was significantly different between Toronto and Memphis. Basically, Valanciunas went from being an out of place reserve with the Raptors to becoming a featured difference maker with the Grizzlies.
Averaging nearly 10 more minutes per game in Memphis with the freedom to dominate the post as he saw fit, Valanciunas produced career best per game, per-36 minute, and advanced numbers as a starter with the Grizzlies. In 19 total games (17 as a starter) with the Grizzlies, Valanciunas averaged 19.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.6 blocks per game. With a style that was significantly different from how Gasol manned the center position for a decade, Valanciunas’s impact and production reminded many of Zach Randolph in his prime. As mentioned above, as a result of his stellar play, the Grizzlies made sure that Valanciunas would anchor their very talented front court for the foreseeable future.
Besides Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant, Valanciunas’ role probably is the most clear and secured on the roster. The Grizzlies want him to do exactly what he did last March, which is dominate the post through scoring and second chance looks on offense while protecting the rim and getting rebounds on defense. If Valanciunas can come close to repeating the success he had last season, the Grizzlies could have a clear front court advantage against many teams in the NBA over the next few years.
With the presence of Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke, Valanciunas may see a dip in his overall numbers. However, if his quality of play at the rim can remain effective, Valanciunas will likely remain a featured option on offense for high percentage shots. Memphis was clearly competitive against more talented teams last year in games that Valanciunas received double digit shot attempts. With a roster that will likely be inconsistent at times, consistently featuring Valanciunas gives Memphis a stable option to rely on if others struggle offensively.
Best Case Scenerio
Obviously, the Grizzlies and their fans would love to see the same Valanciunas that dominated the paint in March last year. The hope is that he can overcome his current foot injury, immediately step into a starting role, and become the double-double threat he was in many games last year. That level of production would help the Grizzlies out tremendously in the areas of scoring and rebounding, two weaknesses of this franchise in the recent past.
If Valanciunas can play 70 or more games, an optimistic outlook is Valanciunas establishing himself as one of the more underrated centers in the NBA. Along with Clarke and Jackson Jr., a healthy and productive Valanciunas could make the Grizzlies front court quite formidable in the near future. Valanciunas’s ability at the rim on both ends of the court should also enhance the production and quality of play of his teammates. Overall, Memphis’s hope is that Valanciunas’s play this year leads to signs of development from him and the rest of the roster.
Worst Case Scenerio
While there is obvious reason for hope and optimism around Valanciunas and the Grizzlies young core, there are also a few concerns that could limit their success. The most significant concern is the health of Valanciunas’s foot, an ailment that kept him out of preseason action and also will likely result in a few missed games to start the season. While the injury is considered minor, any foot injury for a man of Valanciunas’s size can linger. Memphis must make sure they do whatever it takes for the injury to properly heal.
Another concern that could arise is Valanciunas’s fit with the new roster. Obviously, head coach Taylor Jenkins and his staff know that Valanciunas is their most established offensive weapon, and they will tailor their schemes and concepts to his strengths to feature him. However, the Grizzlies do not have the same amount of outside shooting they had in March to give Valanciunas more than enough room to operate. If teams know that they can beat Memphis by limiting Valanciunas and forcing other to shoot, Valanciunas could see a dip in his production. This means the Grizzlies will to find another, less obvious way to secure wins.
In a nutshell, I do not expect that Valanciunas will be as productive as he was in March, nor do I think he will struggle like he did in Toronto. Valanciunas could average 17.5 points, 9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.5 blocks per night while shooting 55% from the field and becoming the occasional threat from beyond the arc. Hopefully, he averages that production line over 70 plus games instead of around 50.
The Grizzlies invested in Valanciunas to be a constant source of production in an overall experiment that will have plenty of variables due to the young roster in Memphis. Valanciunas seems to like it here, and has certainly embraced that role. If he can remain healthy, he should not only be able to enjoy the best success of his career, but should help in the development of his teammates. If his health cooperates, Valanciunas could easily establish himself as one of the best pure centers in the NBA.