Should Jonas Valanciunas and Jaren Jackson Jr. play together?

This season, the Grizzlies and fans of the team have not seen the natural growth from last year’s 4th overall draft pick, Jaren Jackson Jr., that they were hoping to experience in year two of his hopeful career. 

On the flip side, center Jonas Valanciunas, who was acquired last season via the Marc Gasol trade with Toronto, has performed admirably and efficiently as the post anchor for the Grizzlies. 

However, there remains a question: is the presence of Valanciunas playing a contributing factor in the lack of growth from Jackson?

Let’s take a look at some of the numbers and find out.

So far this season (through 12/8/19), Jaren and JV have shared the court for 244 minutes. With the Grizzlies current pace of 106 possessions per game, this amounts to about 538 offensive possessions, which I consider a decent sample size. As an FYI, Jaren has only played 249 minutes without Jonas on the floor, so we are fortunate enough to have a dead split there.

As a baseline, we can take each of their individual per game stats at face value. Valanciunas is averaging 14.3 points and 9.8 rebounds per game with an effective FG% of 60%. Jackson is averaging 16.2 points per game along with only 3.6 rebounds, and he is shooting less efficiently with an EFG% of 53%. Jaren has played about 70 minutes more than Jonas this season, but that’s not really impactful to this exercise. What I am looking to do is see if the Grizzlies are better off long term by playing Valanciunas and Jaren alongside each other. They are both starter-caliber players in their own right — each with the ability to earn a double-double on a nightly basis — but does having a post-heavy, non-distributing big man help or hurt Jackson?

Let’s find out

One particular area that has been concerning in the case of Jackson is his lack of rebounding. For a seven footer, you would ideally like him to be closer to 8 rebounds a game than his current 4.9 average, which is up only .2 from a season ago. I found it interesting that per PBPstats.com, Jackson’s offensive and defensive rebounding percentages remain virtually unchanged, regardless of whether he is playing with or without Valanciunas.

The Grizzlies as a whole are about 7 points per 100 possessions worse with Valanciunas on the court and 12 points worse with both JV and Jaren in the game. This is according to the PBPstats WOWY number, which attempts to calculate the direct impact a player(s) has on the game. The team offensive rating doesn’t dip by much, but the defensive rating falls from 106.47 to 117.19 (yikes!).

If one of the goals of the future for the Grizzlies is to have Jaren Jackson Jr. as a staple of their offense, then that means playing him without JV more frequently. Jackson’s usage rate is negatively impacted by 9 percentage points depending on if he shares the floor with JV. The second year player’s EFG% is 4th on the Grizzlies behind the hyper-efficient Brandon Clarke, Solomon Hill, and yup, Jonas Valanciunas. Our two subjects in this article rank 2nd and 3rd in points per field goal attempt. This is a bi-product of coach Taylor Jenkins’ philosophy to shoot more three-point shots, which is helping Jackson make up points by hitting more threes at a less efficient clip. 

Some interesting notes regarding Jackson’s shooting this year:

He shoots 8% better from three without JV and 11% fewer of his threes are assisted.

Jackson shoots 8% more shots at the rim without JV but shoots them 5% worse.

Overall, Jaren’s EFG% is 9% higher when he plays without Valanciunas.

I hate to say it, but even though the Lituanian center has been a valuable member of the Grizzlies, owns a 21.1 PER, and is currently the best rebounder on the roster, It appears as though it’s not in the best interest of the Grizzlies to look at him as a long-term option at center if they want Jaren Jackson to play a critical role in the offense. With the style of play they are trying to establish and the young players they are trying to mold into a cohesive unit, Valanciunas is someone looking from the outside-in.

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