I see a bag of mixed emotions around Memphis Grizzlies social media regarding Jonas Valanciunas and his future with the team.
If you look some places on the web, the 20-10’s give fans flashbacks of Zach Randolph.
Or some see him as a legitimate building block for this team.
Some see him as an expendable, or average, center.
Some see his contract as a nice, team-friendly move, or as an albatross.
I wouldn’t say I’m an extremist on either end. I don’t see Jonas Valanciunas as a long-term building block next to Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja Morant, and Brandon Clarke, but I also don’t see him as a liability either. Given the moves in free agency thus far (Brook Lopez, Dewayne Dedmon, Dwight Powell, or even DeAndre Jordan), the Valanciunas signing was really good for Memphis. At 3 years and $45M, he’s not ruining cap space — in fact, next summer, he’ll be the most expensive contract on the books at just $15M. In addition, by the time his contract expires, Jaren will be extension-eligible.
So, financially, not bad.
On the court though — the reason I’m writing about this here — paying Valanciunas $15M/year for his production is not bad at all in today’s NBA economy. He’s still only 27 years old, so the Grizzlies will have him for the better part of his prime. Though he may not be the 20-10 monster he was in his short stint with Memphis, there’s no reason to doubt that he can be a 14-10 guy at the least — which is great for $15M a year.
The frontcourt of the future is Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke. No question. Everyone sees them as a duo with the potential to be a phenomenal 4-5 combo...which causes some to scratch their heads when it comes to signing Jonas Valanciunas. However, the grizzled young veteran may be the short-term boost this duo needs to dominate long-term.
Maximizing Each Other’s Strengths
Surprisingly enough, even though the league is at this “small-ball” state of mind, Valanciunas fits with both Clarke and Jackson. He has the skill-set to complement both of these youngsters, primarily on the offense end.
There are numerous ways to play Valanciunas and Jackson together. For one, Jackson has an advanced perimeter skillset for his age and size, and it’s only going to get better. He can space the floor and fire 3’s both in catch-and-shoot and off-the-dribble situations. His ability to take opponents off the dribble is vastly underrated as well. With Valanciunas, the Grizzlies can run a 4-out, 1-in offense with him down low. They could also run PNR situations with Jackson as the ball-handler and Valanciunas as the roller — like what Denver does with Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee. Or, they can run a high-low with Valanciunas high and Jackson low.
Either way, both Valanciunas and Jackson have the offensive repertoire to create a low-key dangerous frontcourt dynamic.
The fit with Clarke is a tad more tricky, as both players have significantly better in the paint. However, Valanciunas has the passing ability to make high-low’s work with Clarke. Given when these two would play together — primarily against second-units — the offensive synergy with them would be quirky, but efficient.
Each of these players have the offensive gifts that are complementary with one another, and Coach Jenkins is tasked with maximizing it.
Shoring Up Each Other’s Weaknesses
All around, these 3 could make up for the other’s deficiencies.
We’ve seen that Jaren Jackson Jr. still needs lots of work on his rebounding, and to be fair, you might have to say the same about Brandon Clarke. Jonas Valanciunas has proven himself as one of the strongest rebounders in basketball, so he’ll be able to muscle the load on the glass, while maybe clearing out space for them to collect boards as well.
The young fellas also clean up for Valanciunas’ weaknesses defensively. Though his defensive concerns are a tad overblown, he isn’t a great rim protector, and he also can’t really defend in space super well. With Jackson or Clarke, either one of them would be strong help-side defenders and have the explosiveness to make some emphatic blocks from there.
Protecting Them for the Future
Let’s be completely honest. Jaren Jackson Jr. is the prototype for the modern 5. He’s a big with a pterodactyl-like wingspan, can shoot 3’s, create off the dribble, protect the rim, switch in the pick-and-roll, and score in the low post. It’s crazy to think he’s only 19 years old, and you’re salivating just thinking about what he can become.
However, he’s not ready for that spot. He’s a poor rebounder for his position, and he could use a bit more muscle. More importantly though, the Grizzlies have to be cautious and avoid any extra wear and tear on his body. Having him go up against 5’s for 30-35 minutes every single game is exhausting.
For Clarke, he’s a NBA Twitter draft crush with potential to become one of the elite role players in the league. He garnered Paul Millsap and Pascal Siakam comparisons for his phenomenal defensive versatility, offensive efficiency, and room for growth on both ends of the court. Pairing him next to Jaren and Ja is magnificent, as he could be the perfect third banana in the starting lineup with them. But...is he really ready to start?
Insert Jonas Valanciunas.
He’s a starter-quality center that’s a big body and one of the league’s biggest gladiators on the glass. He allows the Jackson and Clarke will organically grow and evolve into what they could become without rushing anything. People don’t realize how the importance of this.
Say what you want about Jonas Valanciunas, but there’s no harm in keeping him. He’s on a team-friendly deal, and he’s actually productive and pretty young. As an old-school center, he’s not a glamorous option for the modern NBA, but he’s a great fit next to Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke. Each of them have the game to complement the other where they can maximize each strength and shore up one another’s weaknesses.
The Grizzlies have a nice 3-big rotation with these 3, and it’s something I’d lean on often — while maybe sliding down Jackson or Clarke to the 5 and having Jae Crowder or Andre Iguodala at the 4.
Yes, Valanciunas complements Jackson and Clarke and protects from wear and tear that comes with playing the 5. More importantly though, he’s a great influence for the locker room. His personality will radiate in a young locker room. He’s a veteran approaching his prime, and he’s also contributed in playing winning basketball. When rebuilding, it’s important to have young veteran players that know what it takes to become a playoff — ideally, championship — organization.
Again, say what you want about Jonas Valanciunas, but he’s a perfect fit next to Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke, and he’s the kind of player I want to support the bright young core of Jackson, Ja Morant, and Clarke.