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The Validation of Jonas Valanciunas

The veteran big man is having a monster season and a massive impact on this young Grizzlies team

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Memphis Grizzlies v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The shift to position-less basketball in the NBA is officially here to stay, and the Memphis Grizzlies were arguably the last team to buy into the trend, as they hung onto the Core Four as long as they feasibly could — which, in terms of contending for titles, might have been two seasons too late.

When the inevitable was finally staring the Memphis front office in the face, they opted to trade the best player in franchise history. It was not the easiest choice, but they did right by Marc Gasol, sending him to the Toronto Raptors, which led to an eventual title that season.

In return, the Grizzlies received Delon Wright, CJ Miles and Jonas Valanciunas. The now-28-year-old Lithuanian big man was the 5th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. He was no slouch, as he was thrown into the NBA fire right away, averaging 8.9 points and 6 rebounds in 23 minutes of play his rookie season. At the end of his tenure in Toronto, his career numbers were: 11.8 points and 8.4 rebounds with 2017-18 (last full season with the club) being his best season across the board (12.7 points and 8.6 rebounds on 56.8% shooting from the field).

The Raptors went all in on Kawhi Leonard’s contract year, upgrading from the 26 year-old big to an All Star center at the end of his career in Marc Gasol. Their preference of an aging seven footer over JV leads to a narrative that maybe Jonas is not all that valuable of a player if he was so easily tossed in a trade.

So what is the value of Jonas Valanciunas in today’s NBA? Does his top-3 in the NBA rebounding numbers make him irreplaceable? Does the inability to show on screens due to lack of lateral quickness hurt the team in a way that should effect his playing time? What about his 13th overall shooting percentage? Does that hold any weight?

Relentless Rebounding

Chicago Bulls v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

You can’t mention Jonas Valanciunas and not discuss his insane rebounding this season. He is currently on pace to pass Zach Randolph for the most rebounds per game in an individual season, another stat contributing to his career year.

JV is an absolute monster on the boards. His 7’0” frame and brute strength give him an advantage over most of the opposing fives in the league today. But even the other elite rebounders in the league have struggled to keep him off the glass of late. I was in Orlando in 2019 when he set his career high in rebounding at 24 and the one word I thought of was “relentless.”

According to Cleaning the Glass, Valanciunas is in the 96th percentile in offensive rebounding and the 97th percentile in defensive rebounding. JV currently grabs 24% (2nd in the NBA) of all rebounds while he is on the floor, meaning he is grabbing one out of every four missed shots with 9 other players on the floor. Breaking that stat up, he grabs 15.4%(3rd in the league) of all offensive rebounds and a crazy 33.2% (2nd) of all defensive rebounds, both career highs.

While there is evidence that elite rebounders are becoming less valued — see Andre Drummond — JV presents an interesting case study. On the defensive side of things, Valanciunas’ ability to dominate the boards allows for the Grizzlies to be the second-best team in the NBA on the fast break. Other players are allowed to leak out ahead of the break knowing, and there’s a great chance their guy is coming down with the ball. On top of that, he almost always makes the correct outlet pass down the court to spark the break.

On the offensive side of things, it is a different animal. Zach Randolph dominated the offensive glass with what became known as “ZBounds.” Short chip shots that he would miss and get right back to put in for a bucket. Valanciunas’ offensive rebounds are borderline “assisted rebounds,” such that players like Ja Morant have the confidence to drive to the basket and attempt any shot at the rim, knowing JV is there for a potential mop up bucket.

So yes, the individual box score stat of rebounds may not be something to always celebrate, but it’s what his rebounding on both sides of the floor allow this team to do in order to be successful.

Pillar in the Paint

Chicago Bulls v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

The Grizzlies lead the NBA in second-chance points and points in the paint. Both of which Jonas Valanciunas plays a major role in. For the season he is scoring 16.4 points on 57% shooting and 35% from deep, translating to a 58% eFG rating.

The biggest advantage to JV’s scoring prowess down low is the consistency. Early in games, especially on the road, it sometimes takes players a few runs up and down the court to get their legs and their jumpers under them. Having a guy like Jonas on the block is a luxury, because he can carry the offense early in a game until the wings get it going. Having a steady force down low also gives the offense a safety net to stop an opposing run.

While being a pillar in the paint, he still has the ability to step out and knock a deep ball down here and there to keep the defense honest. Whether it is on the block, bullying a mismatch or initiating the offensive set with a screen and roll, Jonas Valanciunas can always be counted on to aggressively attack the basket and convert at a high rate.

Defensive Downfall

Memphis Grizzlies v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

So would we really need 1,000+ words to talk about the value of a player if there wasn’t something somewhat controversial? While Jonas is an absolute force on the boards and very good offensive player, he struggles at certain aspects on the defensive side of the things.

The primary struggle for JV is his lateral quickness. His inability to move quickly to the side limits the defensive schemes of the Grizzlies from PNR coverages to switchability. He currently has the worst defensive rating of his entire career — a stat that fully relies upon whom he shares the floor with during his minutes.

I found it odd early this season that Jonas refused to show on screens. You could argue that the mid-range shot is the one shot in the NBA that you are willing to give up, as you take away threes and lay ups. When you face elite mid range scorers such as Chris Paul or even Caris LeVert though, giving up bucket after bucket makes it difficult for your team to pull away or catch up in a game.

If Valanciunas were to hedge on all screens, would he be quick enough to rotate and help the helper on defense? If JV were to simply show high on screens for a temporary switch, is he quick enough to recover on the roller? The answer is probably no. So how does defensive limitation effect his value as a contributor on a roster chasing the playoffs?

Washington Wizards v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

At the moment, it is simply a necessary evil without Jaren Jackson Jr.. The optimal situation is to start Jonas and Jaren together, allowing Jonas to eat early, but closing with Jaren and Brandon Clarke for defensive purposes. For that to work, the team has to sell out to team rebounding, as Jaren is a below-average rebounder for his size and position.

For what Memphis does offensively, Jonas’ offensive rebounding and screen-setting are crucial — he must remain an important piece of the rotation, and he certainly will. The question ultimately comes down to the trade-off in a playoff game — Does the coaching staff value his rebounding and veteran presence late in games, or will they turn to being able to defend everything at the cost of rebounding?

Everyone values Jonas differently, but there is a right way to look at him:

Jonas Valanciunas is a steadying presence in a starting lineup that provides strengths and deficiencies just like anyone else on the roster. He is an elite rebounder and reliable paint scorer. He struggles in space on defense. It’s ok to applaud the good and want improvement on the bad. In the end, JV is a very very good basketball player, that may be a generation too late with his skillset, yet gives it everything he has every night as a major factor for this team being in the playoff hunt.

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