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Pay attention to Jonas Valanciunas

Jonas Valanciunas is the most underrated center in basketball. Listen up.

Orlando Magic v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Prior to the season-wide suspension, the Memphis Grizzlies were the league’s biggest surprise, vying for a playoff spot when they were projected to win no more than 26 games before the campaign began. In the midst of their run, a lot of talent on this Grizzlies team was recognized.

Ja Morant had future MVP talks on ESPN talk shows, cementing himself as a potential face of the league. Jaren Jackson Jr.’s 3-point shooting and shot-blocking place him among the league’s elite unicorns. Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton showed why they were analytic darlings coming into the league. Dillon Brooks became a more potent weapon, solidifying his place as a key NBA player.

In the midst of the hype, Jonas Valanciunas has flown under the radar, and he deserves your attention.

Memphis Grizzlies v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s understandable why Valanciunas doesn’t get much attention. His game isn’t flashy, and he’s not the prototypical modern center. He’s not someone who’s going to defend well in space, or shoot 3-4 three’s a game. However, he’s an old-school, bruising big that can gobble up rebounds, drill opponents with screens, and knock down the open 3-pointer when needed.

This season, Valanciunas has averaged 14.9 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 1.8 assists on 58.6% shooting from the field and 36.7% from 3 (1.3 attempts per game). The only other big men that average at least 14 points, 11 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and a block a game are Joel Embiid, Deandre Ayton, Rudy Gobert, and Andre Drummond. If you exclude blocks, you can add Domantas Sabonis and Nikola Vucevic. That’s elite company, and Valanciunas is doing it in fewer minutes than most of his contemporaries.

Valanciunas is a double-double machine that played an pivotal role in the Grizzlies’ playoff race. He’s proven that he’s the league’s most underrated center on a nice value contract, and it’s time to recognize his impact in the modern NBA.

If you wanted to lump Jonas Valanciunas into a tier of centers, he’s probably in the super crowded tier 3, mixed with borderline All-Stars and All-Stars alike.

Tier 1 should be clear. Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Rudy Gobert are the league’s elite centers, and no other player is in that tier.

Bam Adebayo and Domantas Sabonis are in the 2nd tier of this list, as young All-Stars with fluid situations and ceilings. Given Adebayo’s defensive versatility and playmaking acumen, he could easily rise into tier 1 by the end of next season. Sabonis’ defensive limitations may hinder him from being among that tier 1, but he also has put up Jokic-esque numbers this season.

Jonas Valanciunas belongs in a tier with Hassan Whiteside, Andre Drummond, Nikola Vucevic, Clint Capela, and Deandre Ayton. All of these centers — aside from Ayton, who is here because he’s not an All-Star yet — are old-school centers, or new-age rim-runners, that are best suited to be the 3rd or 4th-best players on good playoff teams.

(If you felt the need to rank them, I’d probably have Valanciunas third behind Vucevic and Ayton. He has a more well-rounded skillset than Whiteside, Drummond, and Capela — as the first two post “empty calorie” numbers that don’t really impact the game, and the other benefitted off playing next to two of the five best playmakers in basketball).

In addition, they all fall in the same ballpark in terms of traditional numbers:

tier 3 centers, traditional averages 2019-20
per 36 minutes, tier 3 centers

His minutes are a tad lower, given the Grizzlies’ frontcourt depth of him, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Brandon Clarke. However, his impact is still evident and on par with that tier, even in fewer minutes.

Orlando Magic v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

While the Grizzlies’ younger crop of talent receives more recognition, Jonas Valanciunas has been a steady player for this team.

He paces the team in every rebounding category by a wide margin, leading the team in rebounds per game (11.2), offensive rebound percentage (11.1), and rebound percentage (19.7).

In addition, he paces the team in most advanced statistic categories. He leads the team in PER (22.3), Win Shares (6.2), and VORP (1.8). He’s also 3rd on the team in true shooting percentage (63.1) and in Box Plus-Minus (2.3).

Is this to say he’s the best player on the team? No. However, it only validates that Valanciunas has a bigger impact on the team and in the game than most people are willing to admit.

There was skepticism regarding Jonas Valanciunas’ contract situation this past summer. He entered the offseason with a $17M player, as he declined it to receive more long-term security. The biggest questions regarding his next contract.

How much is too much?

How many years is too many years?

Will the Grizzlies let him walk to fully commit to a rebuild?

The Grizzlies ultimately gave him a 3-year, $45M deal where his salary declines annually — $16M, $15M, $14M. While some might have thought this was an overpay, given his current level of production the Grizzlies couldn’t have done much better than this deal.

Valanciunas filled a need as a strong veteran presence that protected Jaren from becoming a full-time 5, while providing a much-needed lift on the boards. In addition, he can shoulder the scoring load on nights where Jaren and Ja may not have it.

Considering his production and the other centers in his salary neighbor, he might be a bargain. The other centers that make an equivalent salary (average salary of $15M, with a +2, -2 difference) include Tristan Thompson, Ian Mahinmi, Gorgui Dieng, Cody Zeller, Dewayne Dedmon, Brook Lopez, and Mason Plumlee. While the Grizzlies are paying for 14-11-1.5 production, this is what these other teams are getting for the same price.


(Yes, Memphis is excused, since Minnesota originally paid Dieng).

Most of these players, Brook Lopez excluded, project more as fine backup centers rather than starters. So that means the Grizzlies did well here, right?

If you want to expand it to the players in Valanciunas’ tier, he’s the cheapest by a wide margin. He, along with Capela at $18M annually, is the only center in that tier who doesn’t make north of $25M.

So, if you’re slightly concerned about Jonas Valanciunas’ contract, don’t be. The Grizzlies got him at a bargain with how they maintained flexibility for future trades and free agency.

Los Angeles Lakers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Jonas Valanciunas is underrated, and it’s time to recognize his impact.

While he projects more as an old-school center, unlike some recent counterparts in this prototype (David Lee and Greg Monroe are fine examples) his role is not going to be minimized, and he’s not going to be washed away either.

Is he the best player on the team? No. Does he need to play more minutes? Even though he’s highly productive in his minutes, the rotation Jenkins had in place was effective and there isn’t any reason to fix what wasn’t broken. Finding a way to make sure Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas, and Brandon Clarke play at least 20 minutes a night, without wearing them out, is a huge win.

While the young kids have made noise, Jonas Valanciunas has stayed true to his game, mauling opponents down low in the post and battling on the glass for rebounds. In the process, he’s shown that he can add value on this team for the duration of his contract — whether it’s as a starter, super sub, or a primary asset in the Grizzlies’ next big trade.

Regardless of what his role going forward may be, it’s time to recognize some truth. Jonas Valanciunas is a top-10 center in the league, and he’s a vital piece for this NXT GEN Grizzlies team.

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