The Memphis Grizzlies are fortunate to have arguably the best triumvirate of big men in the NBA. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke are the two young guns that get a lot of the accolades and attention. Jackson Jr. lets if fly from three at an high level early in his career and has a knack for blocking shots, while Clarke is already elite in the pick and roll, fitting the run and gun schemes of Taylor Jenkins quite well. The pairing of Jaren and Brandon are viewed as the future, a theoretical perfect front court match for the skills of rookie superstar Ja Morant.
In the present though, there’s a 6’11” Lithuanian bear that make those two a trio that could very well carry the day as the Grizzlies pursue the eight seed in the Orlando bubble.
Jonas Valanciunas is one of the most underrated bigs in the NBA. He in a lot of ways is the Zach Randolph of the Next Generation Grizzlies, a rebounding machine (his 22.4% rebounding rate is the best of his career) who helps stabilize the Grizzlies high-paced offense with consistent touches and finishing at the rim (a 73.4% converter 0-3 feet from the basket according to basketball-reference.com). Valanciunas is the lighthouse for the young Memphis stars when they lose sight of the shore - Ja, Jaren, Brandon, and the rest of the Grizzlies know they can count of Jonas to be elite in those two specific areas and allow for them to play to their strengths.
Which is why when Jonas’ weaknesses get exposed it perhaps is a bit more glaring. And the main concern for Valanciunas heading in to the Disney NBA restart is how his fatal flaw - ironically the same one as Zach Randolph - could impact his ability to stay on the floor. That’s especially evident against one of the main rivals of Memphis entering Orlando -
Melli can be a tough matchup for some fives, because if you watch closely, Valanciunas natural instinct in transition defense is always to run to the paint, not stop at the arc https://t.co/I7x8KDspuY— Jim Eichenhofer (@Jim_Eichenhofer) January 20, 2020
While Eichenhofer is correct in assuming Valanciunas is naturally going to get back to the paint and not worry about the perimeter, it goes beyond that. Jonas does not have the foot speed and lateral movement to stick with fellow fives who can make their living outside the three point arc, especially on pick and pop movements. When watching Memphis play, it is almost as if Jenkins accepts this to an extent - he has Jonas drop back to the lane often, expecting (often times smaller) wings and guards to defend threes as best they can. That - as it did against the likes of Nicolo Melli and the New Orleans Pelicans - has made several Grizzlies writers and fans wonder whether or not Jonas has a place on the floor against the likes of NOLA, or any other team that implements a five out offensive scheme (Houston Rockets and others) in playoff basketball especially.
That’s a fair concern. But it loses sight of the lighthouse. Jonas matters now more than ever before, and instead of forcing him to the side because of his flaws the emphasis should be on enforcing and implementing ways to strengthen his impact on Memphis.
Masking Jaren’s weaknesses
Jaren Jackson Jr. is a true unicorn among young NBA bigs. But the 20 year-old has a long ways to go in several key areas. Rebounding is one that has been addressed here, there, and everywhere - Jaren’s 8.8% total rebounding rate is worse than De’Anthony Melton’s (10%). But while Jaren has not been a steady glass eater at any point since he came to the Grizzlies, there is an aspect of his game that has at best stayed stagnant and at worst has regressed a significant amount from his rookie year. It’s an area many thought he’d be closer to elite that below average at this stage...
It is post defense. Not when he is asked to switch on to a perimeter player - he has the length and quickness laterally to make those scenarios work. But it’s when he is tasked with sticking with a traditional big, ironically similar to his lighthouse of a teammate, that he oftentimes commits untimely fouls (four more in four games less than last season) and gets bullied on the block. His lack of muscle mass isn’t the problem as much as his lack of understanding of close proximity defense in the post when his opponent has his back to him.
Jaren simply isn’t equipped at this stage of his career to be a force around the rim beyond his shot blocking capacity. But Valanciunas’ yin to Jackson Jr.’s yang relationship isn’t limited to the glass. Fortunately Jonas can absorb those defensive matchups, and when it comes to being in the paint Valanciunas is an underrated defender. According to Cleaning the Glass, when Jonas Valanciunas is on the floor his impact on opponents taking shots around the rim goes down 6.9% than they normally do against the Grizzlies. That puts him in the 98th percentile among all NBA bigs, 2nd among “true bigs” (sorry Robert Covington) behind Joel Embiid and in front of the likes of Steven Adams and Rudy Gobert. They avoid the lane against Jonas.
Taylor Jenkins has to make it a priority to get Jonas where he fits best defensively and away from the perimeter, especially when Jaren is on the floor with him. It can’t be at the expense of open threes, however. Defensive rotations can get the ball out of the hands of the Mellis of the world, and on those extra passes it can provide an addition beat of time for a step so Jonas can engage on a three point shot attempt. Once the three is committed to is when Valanciunas attacks, but it would come with a better angle and more opportunity for the 6’11” 265 pound frame of Jonas to have success moving laterally and within the motion of the defense.
He wouldn’t have to plant and retrace his steps - his momentum would help take him where he needed to go. It isn’t a perfect fix. But it gives Valanciunas more of a fighting chance to better impact a three point shot than he would have otherwise.
Jonas Valanciunas - screen setter extraordinaire
The physicality of Valanciunas balances out the flash and dash style of the Grizzlies most nights. Jonas wants to bloody your nose while the rest of the Memphis roster would rather run around you than through you. Perhaps the biggest exception to that rule, however, would be Ja Morant himself. His highlight reel of (missed but still awesome) dunks exemplifies that willingness to embrace contact and finish at the rim, no matter the physical risk.
But sometimes, it is best to let the bruiser do your dirty work. And considering just how dangerous Morant can be with his handle and elite court vision at such a young age having just a little bit of space, utilizing the screening ability of Jonas at an increased rate could make Ja that much more dangerous. A lot is made of the pick and roll, and make no mistake Valanciunas is a threat in that set despite not having the elite athleticism that, say, Brandon Clarke provides. But the experience of Valanciunas allows for him to use his body in ways that perhaps Clarke and other Memphis bigs aren’t familiar with yet. The following play - from last season alongside Mike Conley in the same pick and roll - illustrates just that.
James Harden was unbelievable, and Jonas Valanciunas was an absolute mauler, but man, it was fun watching Mike Conley work his way through the Rockets' defense late last night. One of the best in the business when he's healthy and on a tear. pic.twitter.com/Qw621SCP7U— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) March 21, 2019
Jonas is a big dude. Put it to work in more than just one style of screen - the secondary bodying to allow Mike to have a one on one lane to the rim could just as easily be replicated with Ja. But beyond that, allowing Valanciunas to set more picks out of the post for shooters and in pin-down and elevator door screen situations makes him more of a threat to get not just Ja, but wings like Dillon Brooks more space to get threes off.
The sudden spoils of Memphis when it comes to ball handling and facilitation on the perimeter (such a nice change from past years) could also help Jonas to set multiple screens for multiple rolls and rim runs in a variety of ways. Justise Winslow especially comes to mind - be it in a pick and roll or coming off a Jonas screen off ball, he could use the space between Valanciunas, himself, and the defender to make passes to a back door cutting Morant or Brooks in the corner.
And if Jonas ever accepts he may be a good three point shooter (36.7% from beyond the arc, but only on 79 attempts this season)? The offense of Memphis would become even more difficult to defend. But don’t get too far ahead of yourselves - this bubble situation should be about comfort. Valanciunas relishes the opportunity to use his size. Give him more of what he wants.
Like any basketball player (or human for that matter), Jonas is flawed. While it isn’t as clear of a poor fit as, say, Kyle Anderson, Valanciunas is not a perfect puzzle piece for the pace and space philosophies of Taylor Jenkins. But what Jonas provides that Kyle doesn’t is a steady hand. Offensively when things get rough the team can count on him to attack the paint and work on the low block, and he is elite on the glass (27.1% on defensive rebounds of opposing field goal attempts according to Cleaning the Glass, 6th among NBA bigs that have played at least 1,600 minutes this season).
Beyond that? He makes Jaren Jackson Jr. able to be what he wants to be more consistently, allowing him a better chance to grow and thrive. He can put Ja Morant and the rest of Memphis in spots to create and distribute with the ball offensively. Perhaps most importantly, with his 43 games of postseason experience Valanciunas is the main player for Memphis who combines an understanding of the playoffs with a capacity to execute the schemes of the Grizzlies at a high level. When the going gets tough, Memphis will turn to their Lithuanian lighthouse to guide them home.
Here’s to hoping, given all the uncertainty going in to the Orlando bubble, Jonas is ready and enabled to be what the young Grizzlies need him to be.