Underrated. Disrespected. Crucial.
Those are three words that can be used to describe Memphis Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas. The fact that the eight-year vet didn’t crack ESPN’s Top 100 players heading into the season is disrespectful and laughable. There is no way there are 100 guys in the league better than Valanciunas.
Last offseason, the Grizzlies re-signed the big man to a three-year deal. He rewarded the Grizzlies by averaging a double-double (14.9 pts. and 11.3 rebs.) for the first time in his career. Not since Zach Randolph have the Grizzlies had a guy that you can almost bank on getting a double-double, or flirting with one every time he steps on the court. He is a luxury that not many teams have right now, as the league continues to move more toward smaller, quicker lineups.
When Valanciunas was traded to the Grizzlies, there were questions on how he would fit next to Jaren Jackson Jr. There were also questions on if he would slow down the offense when Ja Morant was drafted. Now, those questions are gone. He’s not only thrived in this system, but he’s raised his game to another level.
With Jaren Jackson Jr. expected to miss time at the beginning of the season, there will be more weight on the broad shoulders of the 7-foot Lithuanian. So what can we expect from Valanciunas this year? He’s going to have to replicate or even better his numbers from last year if the Grizzlies plan to keep up with the loaded West.
In his eighth season, you could argue that Valaciunas had a career year last season. He averaged a career high in rebounds and averaged his second highest amount of points per game. He also recorded his first career triple-double in the regular season finale against Milwaukee.
Valanciunas is a crucial piece to the Grizzlies success. He finished 20th in the league in win shares with 7. That’s two more than the next closest Grizz, Brandon Clarke. As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann pointed out in his preseason power rankings, JV was one of just four NBA players last season who shot 70% or better on at least 200 attempts in the restricted area and 50% or better on at least 100 attempts elsewhere in the paint. When Jaren Jackson Jr. wasn’t in the lineup, JV stepped up big time. In 16 games that JJJ didn’t play, JV averaged a cool 16 points and 13.5 rebounds.
There are very few guys on this roster that don’t have a question mark on what their role will be for this upcoming season. JV is one of those guys. We know that he will be the starting ‘5’ when the Grizzlies tip-off the season. My guess is he will average about 28 minutes per game.
The Grizzlies do have a decent amount of bigs on the roster, but he is their number one big man, at least while Jaren is out. As I mentioned earlier, he will be leaned on heavily while JJJ is gone, and because of that, we could see him play extended minutes early in the season, only to pull back on them a tad once Jaren returns. It’s also possible that JV could lose some time if the Grizzlies try to match up with other teams that use a small ball lineup.
Season Best Case Scenario
The best-case scenario for Valanciunas is that he picks up this season right where he left off last season. JV only got stronger as the season went on. While in the bubble, he had double digit rebounds in every game except for the first one. He closed the season with double digit rebounds in 14 of his final 15 games.
It’s also important that JV continues to gel with the Grizzlies, while the young guys continue to grow. He does a great job in his role and does the dirty work while allowing the other guys to shine.
One part of his game I would also like to see evolve a little bit is his long-range shooting. JV shot a career high number of threes and shot 35% from downtown. While that number is not great, it is enough to where other teams do have to respect it. If he is able to add that to his arsenal, the Grizzlies become a lot more dangerous.
Season Worst Case Scenario
The worst-case scenario is that Valanciunas peaked last season and is now on the downward part of his career. I don’t see that happening at all, as he is still just 28 years old.
Other bad-case scenarios include, of course a season-ending injury; but also the possibility of him getting squeezed out of minutes because the Grizzlies look to the future and try out more lineups with Jaren at the ‘5’.
Jonas Valanciunas is a guy that has pretty much stayed under the radar for his entire career. So, expectations for him are pretty much go out and do what he does best – that’s be a beast down low and clean-up the boards.
I’m expecting JV to make another jump and once again average a double-double. If he can do that and continue to defenses honest when Jaren Jackson Jr. is on the floor, then the Grizzlies will be able to contend for one of the final playoff spots in the West.