MikeCheck: Valanciunas’ stretch-run impact with Grizzlies aligns with NBA’s resurgence at center

MikeCheck: Valanciunas’ stretch-run impact with Grizzlies aligns with NBA’s resurgence at center

MEMPHIS – Among other affinities he’s developed for the organization and city, Jonas Valanciunas has built quite an affection for local barbecue ribs.

Even in small doses, a taste of this town tends to have that impact. It leaves you hungering for more.

“I’ll go with wet (over dry),” the 7-foot Lithuanian said of his preference for a sauce-based finish instead of dry-rub seasoning for his ribs. “I’ve been to a couple of places now and really like their stuff. It’s not a good thing (to keep eating) when you’re playing. But when you’re not playing – don’t tell any coaches.”

Let’s just say Valanciunas’ cheat day meal choice isn’t quite the best-kept secret in Memphis.

Nor is his desire to keep feasting on the productive role in which he thrived for the Grizzlies after arriving in the February trade from Toronto. A 33-49 season certainly wasn’t without its share of disappointments for the Grizzlies, who missed the playoffs for the second straight year, dismissed coach J.B. Bickerstaff and made significant front-office changes the past few weeks.

Joakim Noah and Jonas Valanciunas react to the win in OT over Houston Rockets

Joakim Noah #55, Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the Memphis Grizzlies talk after the game against the Houston Rockets on March 20, 2019 at FedExForum in Memphis, TN. Photo by Joe Murphy via Getty Images.

However, when counting matters that exceeded expectations, Valanciunas’ instant impact ranks high atop the list. But is he a long-term fit, a short-term stopgap or simply a high-profile rental to get the Grizzlies through the season? That question looms as large at the center spot as the player who manned the position for Memphis down the stretch.

While the Toronto Raptors have moved into the second round of the playoffs after acquiring Marc Gasol from Memphis in pursuit of an NBA title, Valanciunas is approaching a mid-June deadline to determine his future with the Grizzlies. Valanciunas can either opt into the final year and $17.6 million remaining on his contract for next season or inform Memphis he is opting out to become a free agent on July 1. A third path would be to work with the Grizzlies on an intermediate contract extension.

Before Valanciunas left Memphis immediately after the season – first to Toronto to pack his belongings and then on to his native Lithuania to regroup – he was optimistic about staying with the Grizzlies. Valanciunas was fond of the former coaching staff, particularly big man assistant Vitaly Potapenko. But some front office continuity remains, with Zach Kleiman (Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations) and Tayshaun Prince (Vice President of Basketball Affairs) recently promoted to more prominent positions after playing key roles in the Feb. 7 trades that reshaped the roster.

“I want to play basketball, and I want to play the way that we showed the last two months of the season,” Valanciunas said of the most productive stretch of his seven-year NBA career. “It’s just a matter of making a decision, talking with the team, talking with the (front office) upstairs. And I think we’ll make a decision and everything will be good.”

After missing two months before the trade to recover from thumb surgery, Valanciunas was dominant from his debut with Memphis. In his first game with the Grizzlies, Valanciunas had 23 points and 10 rebounds in 21 minutes off the bench on Feb. 12 against San Antonio. And he didn’t slow down one bit until a sprained ankle sidelined him for the final week of the regular season.

It’s just a matter of making a decision, talking with the team, talking with the (front office) upstairs. And I think we’ll make a decision and everything will be good.

Jonas Valanciunas

With a bulldozing style that provided the Grizzlies a desperately needed boost in rebounding and interior scoring, Valanciunas had a distinct impact in Memphis. From the Feb. 7 trade deadline through the end of the regular season, he was the only NBA player to average at least 19 points (19.9), 10 rebounds (10.7) and 1.5 blocks (1.58) on 50 percent shooting (54.5%).

That 19-game stretch saw Valanciunas accomplish historic feats in a Memphis uniform. In a March 30 win at Phoenix, Valanciunas became the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1978 to finish a game with at least 30 points, 20 rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks while playing fewer than 40 minutes. A week before that, Valanciunas grabbed a career-high 24 rebounds, including a franchise-record 23 defensive boards, in an overtime game against Orlando. The 23 defensive rebounds were the most in a single NBA game since Dwight Howard snagged 23 in 2013.

Over an 11-day span that started March 20, Valanciunas posted a career-best streak of six consecutive double-doubles, averaging 25.8 points and 16.7 rebounds in that stretch. And that production came during a highlight month for the Grizzlies, who went 7-6 in March, which included a 5-2 record at home with all five victories coming against teams that advanced to the playoffs.

Jonas Valanciunas

Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the Memphis Grizzlies reacts after a play during the game against the San Antonio Spurs on February 12, 2019 at FedExForum in Memphis, TN. Photo by Joe Murphy via Getty Images.

Valanciunas thrived in the pick-and-roll game with point guard Mike Conley, who also posted career-best numbers. But the Grizzlies only got to unleash Valanciunas alongside rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. in the frontcourt for two games because the promising power forward was sidelined with a deep thigh bruise. The small sample size with them together left the two eager to return in tandem next season.

“He’s a great, young, talented kid,” Valanciunas said of Jackson, the fourth overall pick from last June’s NBA Draft. “He’s growing every day, putting a lot of work in. Obviously, he wasn’t playing at the end of the season, but every day he was still in the weight room, trying to expand his game, doing things by himself. He’s going to be great one day.”

Jackson, who ranked second this season among rookies in blocks, third in field-goal percentage and fifth in rebounds, hopes to continue his rapid development alongside a complementary big man in Valanciunas. The potential combination of Jackson’s versatility and Valanciunas’ physicality in the post could be a lethal one-two punch for the Grizzlies. Valanciunas was second among NBA players in points percentage (70.2) on post-up plays during the season, two spots ahead of Sixers center Joel Embiid.

“I would love to play with him – his game is so physical, so I feel I can balance his game (and) we’d complement each other really well,” Jackson said of Valanciunas. “That’s my guy right there, my partner in crime. It was frustrating not to play. I wanted to play, and J.V. was killing it out there, so I wanted to be a little part of that. He likes his right hand as I like my left hand. We’d be great.”

Valanciunas was part of the NBA’s resurgence at the center position this season, with that big man momentum carrying into the playoffs and having a major impact. All-Star Nikola Jokic produced two triple-doubles to push Denver past San Antonio in the first round, while Al Horford’s emergence for Boston allowed the Celtics to steal homecourt advantage in Game 1 against top-seeded Milwaukee.

Also, the Gasol-Embiid matchup could ultimately tip the balance in the Raptors-Sixers series. And with a limited market at center among potential free agents, Valanciunas’ value may never be higher than now.

“Those 19 games I played with Memphis were great,” Valanciunas said. “I had a chance, I had minutes, I had touches. I feel confident coming into next season. There’s still some decision-making and stuff like that. We’ll see what happens. I’m saying I want to continue on that path.”

Power Forward Subplots

Only a breakout stretch of performances by Valanciunas could have overshadowed one of the best comeback stories in the NBA this season. And that was Joakim Noah’s path back to a key rotation role with the Grizzlies after being released by the Knicks under the NBA’s “stretch” provision last year.

Noah, 34, enters the summer as a free agent after playing in 42 games and averaging 7.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 16.5 minutes. On many nights, his energy off the bench sparked the Grizzlies through some listless starts to games. His veteran voice and leadership also stabilized a locker room that endured controversy and widespread roster changes. Noah was still reportedly owed $38 million over two years when the Knicks cut him, so money likely won’t be a major factor on his next deal. Expect it to be more about role and fit, both of which he enjoyed while with the Grizzlies this past season.

A team closer to title contention could be more enticing to Noah at this stage of his career, which would leave the cupboard completely bare should Valanciunas opt out and depart. The Grizzlies got through the final week of the season by signing veteran journeyman Tyler Zeller, but he’s also a free agent.

Bottom line

One way or another, the center position will be a priority the Grizzlies address in short order this offseason. Where Memphis lands in the May 14 draft lottery will be a small factor, but Valanciunas’ decision on his looming option will set the tone for the immediate next steps.

Rebounding has been a glaring weakness the past few seasons, so getting another big body or three on the roster is essential. Ideally, Valanciunas opting into the final year of his contract would be the best move for Memphis, because it gives the franchise another year to see if he can build on his success. Plus, it would maximum salary-cap space for the summer of 2020. But if the Grizzlies love Valanciunas, locking up the soon-to-be 27-year-old center at a reasonable rate is hardly a bad alternative.

Ultimately, this is about protection for the 19-year-old Jackson as his NBA game and body develop. Adding depth at center would go a long way for a team that needs a bruising, rebounding, space-eating presence in the paint.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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