This recent surge by the Memphis Grizzlies has been quite unexpected with the roster they have assembled. The team has now won five straight and are sitting as the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Their roster is structured with a few young guys who are developing into stars and wily veterans who balance out the team on the back end. The headliners of this roster, of course, are Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. The team has had some underlying production that gets missed in all this buzz, however.
The main name that deserves more respect on it is Jonas Valanciunas.
Right on cue for this article, Valanciunas had a comanding game last night against the Golden State Warriors, finishing with 31 points and 19 rebounds. He came over in the Marc Gasol trade from last year as a piece many were not sure about. He was approaching a player option and could have just mailed it in and headed in to free agency. Instead, Valanciunas was very impressive in his first few months in Memphis. It paid off in big ways securing a 3-year, $45 million deal with the Grizzlies. He was locked in as a veteran member of this young, exciting Grizzlies team.
There is a niche role that Valanciunas has in today’s NBA. He is one of the old school bruiser types who gets their money playing tough-nosed basketball earning every rebound he collects. This style contrasts perfectly in this Grizzlies’ rotation. The frontcourt has Jaren Jackson Jr. leading the charge, but he is no where close to a big bodied rebound-first big man. He likes to spread the floor and try to make three-point attempts. Then, number two on the depth chart at the center position is Brandon Clarke. He is another younger, more athletic rim-runner type who can play at a quicker pace than Valanciunas can.
With these two sharing similar styles, Valanciunas has carved out his role on this team and has thrived this year putting up big points and rebounding numbers. He has been a constant that this young Grizzlies team has definitely needed.
This season, Jonas Valanciunas is averaging 15.1 points and 9.9 rebounds a game. Both of these are up from his career averages and have steadily increased over his career. One stat that has taken a jump up this season not expected is his assists per game at 2.0. Even as this is a low number in the grand scheme of things, Valanciunas has never averaged more than one assist a game over a full season. He has changed the way he thinks about the position setting up his teammates more in a pseudo playmaker role.
Normally, in this situation, the Grizzlies would have someone come up to him for Valanciunas to set the pick. This has been is normal instinct any time he gets the ball at the top of the key, however, this year especially he has looked at the cutting guy flashing to the rim. In this clip, he finds Morant who had a step on his defender. This vision has been an underrated part of Valanciunas’s importance to this team.
Outside of this improved playmaking for others, there is also another facet of his game he has changed for the better. He has been taking the three-point shot at a higher rate than years past. Similar to assists, he had not taken more than one three-point attempt per game throughout his seven-year career. He is only attempting 1.5 a game but is shooting 44.6% on these attempts. It is the changing analytically times forcing him to make this change, but he seems to be embracing this change for the better on the small volume of attempts he is taking.
More than anything else, this clip shows the importance of Valanciunas showing a three-point shot. Think back to the Marc Gasol days when he started stretching his range out to three. This, just like with Valanciunas, will spread out the defense making the center guard out on the arc giving the ball handlers more room to attack the paint, i.e. Ja Morant. With this space, the playmakers can attack the rim and not have to worry about the big man coming over and impacting the shot. Baynes committed to Valanciunas getting the ball back at the top of the key and let Morant fly right in for an easy two.
Even if Valanciunas does not take or make a high number of three-point attempts, his “threat” will make defenses give up more room in the paint for others to take advantage of.
The improvements since Jonas Valanciunas has arrived in Memphis are very promising to see. He has adapted his game around this modern NBA and thrived putting up his best numbers of career. These young guys have taken over this team, and he has been along for the ride. It all has been on display in this stretch of the Grizzlies last 11 games. They have won 8 of 11, and Valanciunas has averaged 18.2 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists shooting 66.7% from the field.
While Ja and Jaren have the headlines and the spotlight, it is the underlying players such as Jonas Valanciunas who are the constant points and rebounds that keep the team stable. There may not be any high-flying dunks or crazy assists, but it is the simple things he does right each and every game that deserves this recognition.
The Memphis Grizzlies really do look like a playoff team right now. We will see how this progresses up until May and June, but Valanciunas will be a key part of their continued success.