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Unleashing Jonas Valanciunas

Have we seen peak JV?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone is waiting for their opportunity.

Whether it is that dream job, a chance to prove themselves, whatever it is, we all have that moment in mind. You would think a player making it to the NBA would be the culmination of that moment. For us normal humans that aren't freakishly athletic, we all think to ourselves just making it the league is enough.

But for NBA players, just making it should never be the end game. Their ultimate goal is to win championships and be the best possible player, not just good enough to be in the league.

At the age of 19, Jonas Valanciunas became just the tenth Lithuanian born player to be drafted into the NBA with the 5th overall pick by the Toronto Raptors, still the highest pick ever by a player from his country.

His moment had come.

Jonas made his NBA debut October 31 2012 and proceeded to post a 12 point-10 rebound double double to begin his career. The following summer the former #5 overall pick became the Las Vegas Summer League MVP. A beast was in the making.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

One of the worst parts of young adulthood is being the third wheel. It’s even worse when you are out with one of those couples that is all over each other, making sure you really feel out of place.

By no choice of his own, Jonas Valanciunas found himself the third wheel on the Toronto Raptors, and rightfully so. The Raptors found themselves with an All Star pairing with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and while the craze in the NBA was getting a Big Three, for whatever reason the team never really valued JV as a third musketeer.

During his first five years in the NBA, Jonas’ usage rate never got above 20% but once and that was 20.9%. (Usage rate is the amount of time a player is involved in a play during his time on the floor.) From his rookie season to 2016-17: 16.9%, 18.5%, 19.1%, 20.9%, 19.5%.

In that same stretch, Kyle Lowry’s usage rate looked like this: 20.3%, 22.9%, 25.4%, 26.1%, 24.9%

DeMar DeRozan: 24.2%, 28%, 28.4%, 29.8%, 34.3%

The argument is not that Valanciunas should have had a higher usage rate than either one of these players. The argument is that we may have not seen the best Jonas yet.

It seems as if, as soon as Toronto figured out they needed to feature Jonas more, they shipped him off to take a shot at the NBA Finals with Lowry and Marc Gasol’s championship windows closing. In 2017-18 JV’s usage rate was 1% higher than Lowry’s and before his trade this season his usage rate rose to 25.7%.

As a result of his higher usage rate, his per 36 minutes stats were the best of his career — an astounding 20.4 points and 13.8 rebounds.

So far in his short time in Memphis, his usage rate is at an all time high 28.8%.

As a point of reference here are the best usage rates by perhaps the two best bigs in Grizzlies history:

Zach Randolph: 29.2% (2016-17) Z-Bo never had another season in Memphis over 26.1%. His best PER 36 numbers in that time: 20.7 points and 12.1 rebounds (2016-17).

Marc Gasol: 26.4% (2016-17) Gasol was never featured as much as Jonas is right now for Memphis. His best PER 36: 20.6 points (2016-17) and 9.3 rebounds (2009-10).

Currently in Memphis JV’s PER 36 is 25.4 points and 12.7 rebounds. For 2018-19 as a whole he is at 24.7 points and 13.5 rebounds.

The PER 36 stat is a more reliable analytic stat than the basic per game stats because per 36 is based on actual minutes played not just per game. So from what it looks like, the more Jonas is used, the more productive he is.

Mike Conley is clearly the #1 option in Memphis, but he doesn't always look for his own shot. Some might argue that Jaren Jackson Jr. should be the second option going forward. Well let’s compare this season’s PER 36 for both guys.

Jaren Jackson Jr.

51% shooting, 77% free throw shooting, 6.5 total rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.9 blocks, 19 points

Jonas Valanciunas

58% shooting, 81% free throw shooting, 13.5 total rebounds, 2.1 assists, .7 steals, 1.5 blocks, 24.7 points.

Jaren Jackson Jr. is only a rookie and spent a lot of his season in foul trouble. Here is what I am here to say: The Memphis Grizzlies have the opportunity to not rush Jaren’s development, to not drop the weight of the franchise on him so early. With Jonas on the team, the Grizzlies can allow Jaren to find his footing in the NBA as a third option until the time is right for him to take over.

Even outside of Jaren’s development, Jonas is worthy of being a number two option. If the goal is to convey this year, feeding the beast down low is the way to go. If returning to the playoffs next season is the goal, making JV the #2 option is the way to go .

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