It’s a curious little Lithuanian phrase that I came across awhile back that basically means “old reliable”. And it’s a fitting one to describe how Memphis’ most distinguished Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas has impacted the Memphis Grizzlies, even as he has been vastly under-appreciated over the last year.
Because of the perceived individual upsides and apparent progression of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke, it has become entirely too common for people — including myself — to discount Valanciunas’ production on a nightly basis. He is no mere stop-gap until the Grizzlies’ more “modern” frontcourt of Jackson and Clarke is ready; he is in reality the most productive big man per 36 minutes in franchise history.
And that is no hyperbole. So before the angry mob that’s wearing a combination of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph jerseys tries to cancel me, let’s take a look at the numbers. Don’t take it up with me, take it up with math.
Jonas Valanciunas (2019-20: per 36): 20.4 points, 15.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.5 blocks, 59 FG%, 37 3P%, PER: 22.3
Zach Randolph (2010-11): 19.9 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 50 FG%, 19 3P%, PER: 22.6
Marc Gasol (2014-15): 18.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.8 blocks, 49 FG%, 18 3P%, PER: 21.6
Of course, this comparison is not to suggest that Jonas Valanciunas is better than peak Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. He isn’t as impactful as either of them were because a) he doesn’t possess one of the highest defensive IQ’s in NBA history like Gasol and b) his game isn’t as suited for the current era as Randolph’s was back at the beginning of the last decade. He also doesn’t play enough minutes for per-36 to be a fully relevant stat - both Gasol and Randolph played more per game than Jonas does. Marc is playing more minutes per game than Jonas even this season.
But it does add context to how productive and simply good that Valanciunas has been this season for the Grizzlies.
However, despite the fact that he compares favorably to Gasol and Randolph, it’s still unclear where he exactly fits on the big man totem pole for the current Grizzlies. More often than not over the past year, Brandon Clarke has in fact been the front court complement to Jaren Jackson Jr. in finishing games, not Valanciunas. Clarke provides more defensive versatility in clutch-time situations than Valanciunas, who can only guard other centers and isn’t comfortable with defending outside the paint.
Even as a rookie, Clarke has been nearly as statistically prolific as Valanciunas. His PER (21.8) ranked second on the team behind Valanciunas. He ranked in the top ten for the entire league in TS% (68) and eFG% (65), and he was by almost every metric the most efficient rookie in NBA history behind only Mitchell Robinson in 2017-18. His outstanding knack for finding open spaces in the defense and preternatural touch around the rim allowed him to also become one of the league’s best finishers around the basket, converting 73% of his shots at the rim.
With how impactful that Clarke was as a rookie, it’s only natural that many have considered the possibility of him moving into the starting lineup. His eventual insertion into the starting lineup is inevitable as I said last summer, even if it won’t happen for another year or two. His versatile skill-set and switchability on defense makes him the ideal complement to Jaren Jackson Jr. for the Grizzlies’ front court of the future.
But the future is not yet here.
Although it’s questionable whether Jonas Valanciunas will fit into the Grizzlies long-term plans beyond his current contract, his impact is simply too great in the short-term for him to be removed from the starting lineup. Beyond his obvious statistical prowess, one of his greatest strengths happens to also be Jaren Jackson Jr.’s greatest weakness—rebounding. Valanciunas’ 11.2 rebounds per game ranks 9th in the league, which allows him to compensate for Jaren Jackson Jr’s deficiency (his 6.0 rebounds per 36 minutes this year was the second lowest in NBA history for a player 6’10” or taller) in a way that Brandon Clarke, a solid rebounder in his own right, can’t.
In a way, it is Jaren Jackson Jr., or rather his rebounding deficiency, that reduces the feasibility of Clarke’s insertion into the starting lineup in the short term. And removing Jackson, who has already grown into one of the most prolific shooting big men in NBA history and one of the faces of the franchise, from the starting lineup isn’t an option. So the Grizzlies must stick with the player who best complements his most significant weakness, and that player is Jonas Valanciunas.
Until Jaren Jackson Jr. shows significant improvement as a rebounder, the Grizzlies’ starting lineup will not be changing in the immediate future.
To be sure, the Clarke/Valanciunas dilemma is a problem that the Grizzlies have never really had before in franchise history. However, it’s a uniquely beneficial one for them to have. It’s rare for an NBA team to have three big men who are so uniquely talented that it’s difficult to properly maximize each of them with their individual skill-sets.
Brandon Clarke is good enough to start, and he almost certainly will form one half of the Grizzlies’ front court of the future. Jonas Valanciunas is also good enough to start, and he addresses a more glaring need in the present for the Grizzlies.
If the Grizzlies continue on their current upward trajectory, there will be a day when Brandon Clarke will be announced in the starting lineup alongside Jaren Jackson Jr. But until that day comes, “Old Reliable” will be able to get the job done.