Jonas Valanciunas, upon whom the Grizzlies bestowed a three-year, $45 million contract this past free agency, is an NBA dinosaur. His weaknesses, like many other players of his archetype, have been well-documented by coaches and pundits alike.
Thus far in his career, JV has not proven himself to be a competent three-point shooter, as he only averaged one attempt per game and shot a paltry 29% from there this past season, according to Basketball Reference. He surprisingly shot 40% from three in 2017-18, but he absolutely needs a bigger sample size before being declared a good shooter from deep (that 40% was only on one attempt per game, the same as ’18-‘19).
Defensively, he can struggle mightily in the pick-and-roll — the NBA’s bread and butter play that most teams run about 20% of the time. Jonas’s relative lack of foot speed means that he cannot effectively switch or hedge these ball screens, forced instead to drop back and contain drives as best as he can. In short, big men with this profile are not supposed to be playable in the modern NBA, let alone find success.
Dissecting the weaknesses of JV’s game is a fairly simple exercise (I think I did a decent job of that in a single paragraph!), but it would be disingenuous of me not to outline his strengths and further explain how players like Jonas can survive in today’s league, provided that they find themselves in a good enough situation.
JV’s most obvious strength is that he is a superb rebounder, ranking 10th in the league in rebounding percentage among players who played in at least as many games as him. I know that many Grizzly fans want to see young stud Jaren Jackson Jr. start playing the five spot, but that much-ballyhooed idea does not make much sense until JJJ gets stronger and shows drastic improvement as a rebounder. Until that day arrives, Jaren — and the Grizzlies as a whole — desperately need JV’s size and rebounding.
In addition to his ability to crash the glass, Jonas has great touch for a big, as indicated by his career free throw average of 79%. Free throw shooting is usually a good indicator of overall shooting, as we have seen good free throw shooters like Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez (Grizzlies head man Taylor Jenkins was one of Lopez’s coaches last year, by the way) leverage their high percentages from the stripe into long-range marksmanship.
JV does not necessarily have to develop a three-pointer, as he still has value as a post scorer and face-up shooter from mid-range. However, I would fully expect the Grizzlies’ staff to leave no stone un-turned in their efforts to coax out that long range shot. Likewise, they should be cautiously optimistic that Jonas’s touch will translate behind the arc. Even the slightest threat of a JV three would do wonders to open up the offense around Jaren and promising rookie Ja Morant (I’m sure you’ve heard of him).
On defense, JV is not nearly as bad as advertised, as long as he can stay within his comfort zone. FiveThirtyEight’s DRAYMOND defensive rankings, which essentially calculates how much a defender impacts an otherwise open shot, has JV ranked 17th in the NBA over this past season. In other words, Jonas actually projects as a good defender when he is the closest man to the shooter. He does still have those aforementioned struggles out on the perimeter, so it’s a good thing that Jaren is a swiss army knife defender who can help JV out on the outside or serve as a weak-side shot blocker when Jonas gets beat off the dribble.
We did not really get to see Jaren and JV play together last year, but I think that having Jaren as a frontcourt mate will nullify a lot of JV’s perimeter weaknesses and allow him to operate as the Grizzlies’ anchor in the paint. Jonas is certainly not a great defender, but he has enough juice to be a passable presence inside.
Of course, such an overview of the value Jonas can bring to Memphis begs the question: How does this very particular set of skills matchup with the rest of the league? Well, for the millions of you reading this, I have organized all of the NBA’s starting big men—and some prominent backups—into groups, which should illustrate that JV can at least have a fighter’s chance against a vast majority of the league.
(NOTE: Feel free to disagree with these groupings; I am open to any and all opinions on them! Some players have the potential to eventually wind up in a different group, but I think that this is where they all stand as of today. Players within the groups are listed in no particular order.)
GROUP 1: The Dinosaurs
Enes Kanter (Celtics), Cody Zeller (Hornets), Thomas Bryant (Wizards), Alex Len (Hawks), Domantis Sabonis (Pacers), Andre Drummond (Pistons), Tristan Thompson (Cavaliers), Jakob Poeltl (Spurs), Ivica Zubac (Clippers), Steven Adams (Thunder)
First off, it’s important to note that “Dinosaur” is not a negative term here; it merely means that the above group does not have a versatile or modern game. Most teams would be completely satisfied with a guy like Steven Adams or Andre Drummond manning the middle, and young players like Thomas Bryant and Domantis Sabonis still have the potential to turn into something more (I was of the opinion that the Grizzlies HAD to get back Sabonis if they tried to trade Mike Conley to the Pacers).
In any event, Jonas will have no trouble matching up with these guys, as they play similar styles and won’t do anything that would put JV out of his comfort zone. Had I included JV himself in my groupings, I would have slotted him in as a Dinosaur. That seems only fitting for the former Raptor.
GROUP 2: Shot Blockers and Rim Runners
Jarret Allen (Nets), DeAndre Jordan (Nets), Mitchell Robinson (Knicks), Bam Adebayo (Heat), Wendell Carter, Jr. (Bulls), Dwight Powell (Mavericks), Richaun Holmes (Kings), Jaxson Hayes (Pelicans), Clint Capela (Rockets), Hassan Whiteside (Trail Blazers), Kevon Looney (Warriors), Montrezl Harrell (Clippers), Rudy Gobert (Jazz)
These guys are basically more athletic Dinosaurs, as they either live above the rim on offense as lob threats or smother the opponent on defense with their impossibly long arms (Montrezl Harrell is to me the apex high-energy rim runner, while Gobert is of course the premier shot blocker).
JV may find some trouble with the athleticism of this group, but in a similar manner as Group 1, they will not do a whole lot on the perimeter, making it relatively easy for him to match up against them on the inside. Jonas’s only potential issue here would be keeping up with the gazelle-like running of the Clint Capela’s of the world, but he should be right in his wheelhouse facing this group.
GROUP 3: Fast Risers and Graceful Decliners
Serge Ibaka (Raptors), Marc Gasol (Raptors), Dewayne Dedmon (Kings), Myles Turner (Pacers), Lamarcus Aldridge (Spurs), Brook Lopez (Bucks), Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks), Derrick Favors (Pelicans), DeAndre Ayton (Suns), DeMarcus Cousins (Lakers), Al Horford (76ers)
This group seems pretty weird, but I classify it as either NBA vets who are no longer elite (or in the case of guys like Dedmon and Favors, never were elite) but are still extremely solid, or younger players who have the potential to become elite.
One common denominator between this group is that everyone is a reliable shooter from the long two or three, which could give JV some trouble as a defender. Horford, Porzingis, and Aldridge are just a few of the players whose dead-eye shooting could make life difficult for Jonas to defend by forcing him to step outside of the paint.
Despite this group’s improved shooting compared to the Dinosaurs and Rim Runners/Shot Blockers, they are a bit of a mixed bag defensively, so JV’s offensive effectiveness will vary from player to player. For instance, Jonas may feast on Ayton (who was not good on defense as a rookie) but struggle against a premier defender like Horford. Although this group would bring its challenges, Jonas still has a chance to play with them, especially if he has Jaren there to help him manage against the greater versatility of these players.
Group 4: The Cream of the Crop
Not a whole lot to say about this fourth and final group. These guys are currently the best bigs in the association, so of course they will present problems for every matchup, JV included. He can use his brute strength to battle with guys like Embiid and Vucevic, but the sheer talent of these players is a lot for any opponent to overcome. I wish I had more eye-opening insights here, but honestly this is a pretty cut-and-dry case. This group is just GOOD. (For the hell of it, here is a mix of some Jokic highlights if you’re in the mood for some beautiful basketball. Go watch it. Seriously.)
Jonas Valanciunas will always be a bit of a matchup-dependent player, but I hope that outlining his strengths and on-court matchups has shown that he can play and even thrive against a large portion of the NBA. The current small-ball era seems destined to be the meteor that kills the NBA dinosaurs, but stalwarts like JV will not go down without a fight. Indeed, the Grizzlies have a desperate need for Jonas’s rebounding, post-up scoring, and paint defense.
Fans should feel nothing but excitement at the prospect of getting to watch their very own dinosaur wreak an old-school kind of havoc for the next three years.
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