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As the Memphis big men turn

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As the Grizzlies transition from Jonas Valanciunas to Steven Adams as their physical force in the middle, some similarities and clear differences will emerge.

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

While his game and value on the court could certainly be a polarizing source of conversation at times, there is one undeniable truth about Jonas Valanciunas’s time in the Bluff City:

Valanciunas was both a marvelous mentor off the court and a essential monster in the middle on the court.

His production was consistently elite in terms of what he was asked to do. His personality and mindset were critical for a young franchise. His support for the young talents around him was invaluable. There should be nothing but positivity and gratitude toward Valanciunas regarding his time with the Grizzlies. However, the NBA is an ever-evolving league, in terms of both the game itself and as a business. For the future of the Grizzlies franchise, trading Valanciunas was a logical way to improve the roster for the future.

NBA: Playoffs-Memphis Grizzlies at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

While the main reasons for the trade between the Memphis Grizzlies and the New Orleans Pelicans that included Valanciunas, Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe and multiple picks was about improving their pick position in the NBA Draft, the Grizzlies gained a player in Adams who offers a similar player profile to Valanciunas. Both players are “traditional centers” who thrive in terms of the physical aspects of the paint and being a force on both the boards and the blocks. While Adams is certainly not as skilled offensively as Valanciunas, his has a better track record defensively.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, it’s simple to identify the main tasks the Grizzlies want Adams, much like Valanciunas, to focus on:

  • producing near the rim on offense, protecting it on defense
  • highly effective rebounding force on both ends of the court
  • physical presence that the opposition must acknowledge in the paint and setting effective screens

Since arriving in Memphis, Valanciunas not only improved in each of these areas but became one of the best sources in completing these tasks in the NBA. While Adams may not be as dominant as Valanciunas in any one area, he has been quite productive in being effective at these skills through his career. However, when it comes to offense, defense, and rebounding, where specifically might Adams be more or less productive for Memphis than Valanciunas was?

Let’s find out.

OFFENSE

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

If one were to compare Jonas Valanciunas and Steven Adams based off their production during the 2020-2021 season, Adams should not be considered in the same stratosphere as Valanciunas. However, last season was arguably the best year of Valanciunas’ career and perhaps the worst of Adams’ career. The difference last year was relevant, but Adams has a valid track record of better production than he showed in New Orleans.

While Adams certainly has been more productive than he was last year, Valanciunas has always been the more valuable source of scoring. A major reason is simply because Valanciunas has been utilized far more due to being more naturally skilled as a post and perimeter scorer. Over the past five years, Valanciunas’ usage rate stands at 22.5% while Adams is at 15.9% Over the same time frame, on a per-36 minute basis, Valanciunas has averaged 4.7 more FGA than Adams. Last season alone, Valanciunas and Adams averaged 12 and 5.3 shots per game, respectively.

Though there is a big difference in the quantity of attempts per game, the overall shot selection and quality of attempts are rather similar between Valanciunas and Adams. Over the past five years, Valanciunas has an eFG% of 58.8% and 62.3%. Adams has an eFG% 59.9% and a TS% of 62.3%. For their careers, Valanciunas and Adams have both been highly accurate at the rim, while Adams has been slightly better 3-16 feet from the basket.

While usage and skill as a scorer are the main reasons Valanciunas is more valuable offensively than Adams, he also is a significantly bigger threat from distance. Though both players were non-factors from three earlier in their careers, over the past half decade, Valanciunas is 98-272 from beyond the arc while Adams is 1-10. While Valanciunas is certainly not a stretch big, Adams is one of only 5 active players with 15,000 or more career minutes played and 1 or less made threes.

Outside of scoring, both Adams and Valanciunas are highly effective screen setters and improving playmakers. Though neither will be considered a primary or secondary facilitator, both players are much better passers than they were earlier in their careers. Simply put, Valanciunas is a better player overall, because he is a significantly better scoring option. However, as the Grizzlies continue to evolve, scoring will not be the main ask from Adams in his role.

DEFENSE

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

In terms of reputation, Adams is typically regarded as the more effective defender than Valanciunas in terms of making a defensive impact. While Valanciunas has produced higher block rates, Adams has been a more resourceful creator of steals and turnover potential. Adams also has been more effective at deterring scoring both at and away from the rim over his career.

However, Adams’ impact has started to decline a bit as he has continued to age. Though he has remained more effective than Valanciunas, the difference in their defensive impacts is not as much to Adams advantage as it once was though he has remained more effective at limiting scoring opportunities and fouls. But at their size, as both Adams and Valanciunas continue to age and their athleticism declines, both bigs could become bigger liabilities on defense, especially away from the basket.

However, this is one potential area of optimism for Adams in Memphis compared to the past few years of his career. Adams will likely be asked to stay near the rim more since he will have better defensive pieces around him in Memphis than he had with the Thunder or Pelicans. As a result, he could once again become significantly effective at protecting the rim without fouling and limiting second chance points by increasing his defensive rebounding rates. Adams’ defensive impact should improve in Memphis compared to his past few years. This will likely result in him making a bigger defensive impact than Valanciuanas did.

REBOUNDING

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Utah Jazz Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

While Valanciunas is clearly the better offensive player and past numbers and present opportunity suggest Adams is the better defender, perhaps the biggest area of impact for both players moving forward is their rebounding ability. This not only comes from Adams’s and Valanciunas’ individual ability to grab offensive and defensive rebounds, but also limiting the second chance opportunities for the opposition.

For their careers, Valanciunas has certainly been the more productive defensive rebounder. He is one of only 10 players in the history of the league to produce a DRB% of 28 or higher with 15,000 or more career minutes played. For his career, Adams has a DRB% of 17. Furthermore, while Adams was significantly better at limiting the opposition’s ability to produce offensive rebounds and put backs in the past, Valanciunas has made a bigger impact in that aspect of the game over the past few seasons.

During the 2020-2021 season, Valanciunas was arguably the most effective offensive rebounder in the league in terms of his frequency grabbing them and producing points off of them (a league-best 5.2 individual second chance points per game.) However, though Valanciunas was the better offensive rebounder this past season, Adams has actually been the more impactful offensive rebounder over time. Over the past five seasons, Adams has produced an ORB% of 14.6% compared to Valanciunas’s 12.7%.

In fact, 31 players in NBA history have produced an ORB rate of 12% or better with 15,000 or career minutes played. Of that group, Adams ranked ninth in ORB% while Valanciunas ranked 30th. Yet what has made Valanciunas so effective over the past few years is how effective he has been at turning offensive rebounds into points. Over the past four seasons, Valanciunas has shown clear improvement at not only grabbing offensive rebounds, but also turning them into points. While Adams has remained highly effective at grabbing offensive rebounds, he has declined in terms of turning them into second chance points. During the 2020-2021 season, Valanciunas averaged 5.2 second chance points per game while Adams averaged 2.6. In the 2019-2020 season, Valanciunas averaged 3.9 second chance points per game while Adams averaged 2.3.

In terms of their new teams, there is a good chance the rebounding rates for Adams may slightly increase while the rebounding rates for Valanciunas could slightly decrease. The reason being is that New Orleans logically has more rebounding talent on its roster overall than Memphis does. However, for Adams, a critical development for his impact in Memphis will be getting back to the levels he produced a few years ago when it comes to limiting the oppositions’ ability at second chance points while also converting more of his own offensive rebounds into points as well.

As can be seen, there are many ways in which Valanciunas and Adams impact the games in similar fashions. However, there are also clearly more ways Valanciunas makes a bigger impact than Adams. In the end, with the Pelicans having more urgency to win now than the Grizzlies, that is why Valanciunas was the preference over Adams.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

However, though Valanciunas was beloved in Memphis and may be seen as the preferred option in New Orleans, this should not result in Adams being labeled as an afterthought. Memphis sensibly provides Adams with an opportunity to get back to impacting the game as he did during his best years in Oklahoma City when he is own the court. Outside the box score, Adams, like Valanciunas. also supports the Grizzlies franchise cornerstones, Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. Adams will be able to create space for Morant off screens and serve as a roll option while also allowing Jackson Jr. to escape the physical tolls of playing on the block so that he can be a threat as a shooter from distance.

Perhaps even more importantly, Adams brings with him to Memphis a reputation of being one of the most likeable personalities and teammates in the entire NBA. He will embrace the role as enforcer on the court while also being a veteran leader and “big brother” off of it. He also has direct and relevant experience that will prove valuable when it comes to playing with Morant and Jackson Jr. In Oklahoma City, Adams played many minutes with Russell Westbrook as the franchise star, a player that Morant’s game is highly comparable too. In New Orleans, Adams fellow front court starter was Zion Williamson. Adams understands that in Memphis, like with Williamson, one of his biggest responsibilities will be aiding in the maturation of Jackson Jr.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The departure of Jonas Valainciunas from Memphis will likely continue to make a noticeable impact on the roster, the franchise, and the fanbase into the 2021-2022 season, and rightfully so. That is how special he was as a player and person. However, though Steven Adams will not be expected to fill the void left by Valanciunas, he will likely make a positive impact of his own as a player and person rather quickly. Last season, Valanciunas was arguably the best player on the Grizzlies roster at times. Next season, it is fairly certain that Adams will do his best to ensure Morant and Jackson Jr. are the best players on the Grizzlies roster moving forward.

Though their roles may be different, just as Valanciunas so admirably did during his time in Memphis, Adams should be highly effective in performing whatever role he is asked to fulfill by the Grizzlies.

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