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Valuing Jonas Valanciunas

It is not just about keeping Jonas Valanciunas. For the Grizzlies, they must focus on evolving his game to maximize his value.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The start of this off-season has been better than expected for many Grizzlies fans, mainly because of the luck of landing the second pick in the 2019 NBA draft. This instantly improved both the short-term and long-term outlook for the franchise. However, there are still several critical decisions that will be made over the next six weeks. Deciding who the next head coach will be, what to do with Mike Conley, and what other moves to make in the draft are all significant events on the horizon.

However, other individuals also have decisions to make that could impact the Grizzlies future as well. The most significant of those decisions will come from Jonas Valanciunas. Two weeks from today is the deadline for Valanciunas to decide whether he wants to opt-in to his roughly $17 million player option for the 2019-2020 season. It is a decision that will certainly impact the Grizzlies roster construction for next year, and perhaps beyond.

The Grizzlies could help Valanciunas make his decision before June 13th. They could potentially offer an extension for Valanciunas to remain in Memphis for years to come. Of course, there are pros and cons to that idea. Joe Mullinax detailed many of them in his predictions piece on Tuesday, while Peter Edmiston approached the idea from all angles in March. There is logic to both extending Valanciunas and just letting him play out his option next season.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Orlando Magic Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

While it can be debated on whether Valanciunas belongs in the Grizzlies long-term future, there is no denying it is in the best interest of Memphis to secure him for next season. It also seems to be in Valanciunas’ best interest as well. While he certainly can be a dominant force on offense, the same reasons that make a extension for Valanciunas less than a sure thing also makes it likely he would get a smaller salary than his player option in free agency. As a result, another year in Memphis would benefit both the Grizzlies and Valanciunas.

It is very easy to see why Valanciunas staying would benefit Memphis. His play in the month of March helped the Grizzlies offense perform at one of its highest levels in franchise history. His production instantly makes the Grizzlies better, and his style of player naturally complements the game of franchise cornerstone Jaren Jackson Jr. However, while Valanciunas certainly adds significant positive value on the court, there is a specific addition to his repertoire that could benefit the future of both him and Grizzlies.

The added skill is the ability to shoot three pointers. Working with Valanciunas to develop this would give him the ability to adapt better to the trending NBA landscape of five-man lineups where everyone can hit threes. Fortunately, the Grizzlies have one of the better examples in recent league history of how the development of a three-point shot can make a true center remain valuable.

Ironically, it came in the form of Marc Gasol.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Marc Gasol has made 324 regular season threes in his NBA career. 312 of those have come over the past three seasons. In the summer of 2016, Gasol worked with a new coaching staff, led by David Fizdale, to become a more reliable shooter from the outside. The immediate result was a season in which Gasol made 104 threes, shot nearly 39% behind the arc, and helped Memphis unexpectedly make the playoffs.

It is no coincidence that Gasol’s success from three adds significant value to his team’s ability to win. Proof of this is seen around the league. In fact, since the 2016-2017 season, the four centers who have made the most three pointers in the NBA are Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Jokic. Lopez and Gasol just faced each other in the Eastern Conference Finals. Embiid and Jokic were both a game away from the conference finals.

The ability to feature a center who can hit from long range is a big advantage in the playoffs. For instance, those four centers have combined to make multiple threes in 31 playoff games since 2016-2017. Their teams have combined to go 20-11 in those games. Many centers see their overall value decline in the playoffs due a fast-pace style that is played in several games over a short-time frame. The ability to hit the three keeps these bigs stay on the court when it matters most.

The reasons above likely played a big role in the decision for Toronto to trade Valanciunas for Gasol. In terms of individual production, Valanciunas arguably provides more current value between the two. However, in terms of a skill set that can make a difference for a contender, Gasol’s game made Toronto a more complete team as whole. The decision ended up being good one for the Raptors as they head for the NBA Finals.

As can be seen, the development of the three point shot would benefit both Valanciunas and the Grizzlies. For Valanciunas, it makes him more attractive to teams in the future. If he can show he can consistently hit from long range, his list of pursuers in free agency likely lengthens, as contenders will have significant interest.

For the Grizzlies, they still have the need to convey their 2020 pick to Boston. Adding another source of outside shooting to their roster makes them more competitive. However, if the Grizzlies falter, they could decide to trade present assets for future value at next year’s trade deadline. Valanciunas developing an outside shot makes him more valuable as a trade piece. This likely results in more valuable future assets if the Grizzlies decide not to make Valanciunas a part of their future himself.

While the idea of Valanciunas adding a consistent three point shot to his game is beneficial for many reasons, it remains just an idea until Valanciunas proves he can actually do it. Fortunately, there is proof that he can. For his career, Valanciunas has made 45 threes and shot nearly 36% beyond the arc. All but one of those have come within the past two years. In 2017-2018, Valanciunas became just the 11th seven-footer in NBA history to make 30 or more threes and post a three point percentage above 40% in a season.

The setup of Valanciunas becoming a source of threes in the Grizzlies’ offense could be a logical success. As the video above shows, more than half of Valanciunas’s threes in 2017-2018 came off the pick and roll or as a trailing big in quick transition following a penetrating point guard. Whether it be Mike Conley, Delon Wright, or Ja Morant, the Grizzlies will likely have a ball-handler who can easily get into the lane or execute the pick and roll.

Valanciunas can effectively space well via trailing the play or coming off a screen. If he pops to the arc, the point guard then has options. He can drive into the lane for a shot, look for Jackson Jr. in the post for a high percentage look, or pass back out to Valanciunas for a good three point shot. In the end, this setup allows the Grizzlies to have a reliable offensive scheme with multiple options, a welcome sight compared to their recent offensive struggles.

As the Grizzlies embark on an offseason full of decisions that impact their decisions for many years to come, there is no doubt some decisions are more important than others. However, this does not mean the Grizzlies should lose focus on making the most of each decision. If Valanciunas decides to stay, placing an emphasis on making him a more complete offensive player is a must.

This would result in a much more likely positive future outcome for both Valanciunas and the Grizzlies.

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