Jonas Valanciunas Deep Dive: Taking a Look Back and Analyzing What the Grizzlies Have In Their Starting Big Man

Thanks for joining me today for a deep dive into the game of Jonas Valanciunas. He is the third Grizzlies player that I have scrutinized in this series after taking closer looks at Dillon Brooks and Kyle Anderson. Memphis has been blessed over the years to have multiple European big men who embody the Grizzly bear mascot in both attitude and tenacity. Ironically, Memphis acquired JV in a swap with Toronto that sent franchise icon Marc Gasol to The North – and a NBA title. 

With Grizzlies stars Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. sidelined with injuries for the foreseeable future, more of the Grizzlies workload will rest on the broad shoulders of Jonas Valanciunas. Let’s take a look at what that could mean for the starting big man, and the Grizzlies as a whole.

*All stats are from the 2019-2020 NBA season*

A Little Background

Since coming to Memphis, Valanciunas has started nearly every game and averaged a double-double (16 points and 11 boards). His consistency near the basket and on the boards have helped stabilize a franchise in the middle of a rebuild. In the summer of 2019, the Lithuanian signed a contract to keep him in Memphis until the end of the 2021-22 season. The most likely outcome is that he is traded next year as an expiring contract, but for now he’s still a Grizz. 

Let’s take a look at how he stacks up to comparable players in the league and how he impacts his team when on the floor. In this article I’m going to use a lot of bullet points so that we can sift through the data in a timely manner. 

How does he impact his teammates?

For this section, I want to break down how Jonas “gets along” with the teammates that he shared the court with the most last season. You may notice that this only includes players who are currently on the roster. Guys like Solomon Hill or Jae Crowder have been left off the list in hopes of viewing this analysis with a forward-looking perspective. 

  • Looking at minutes played last season with guys still on the roster, he shared the court with Dillon over 1400 minutes and Dillon was the only player who scored more points (+4.10) per 100 possessions playing with Jonas than without him. 
  • Notably, Jaren Jackson Jr. – who JV played alongside for only 730 minutes due to Jaren’s fouls and injuries – scored 11.75 fewer points per 100 possessions while playing with JV. 
  • As is expected, most of the players that JV played heavy minutes with saw fewer shot attempts at the rim.
  • Because Jonas played such an integral part in the offense and was a walking bucket, the usage rate of other key players Morant and Jackson decreased by 1.84 and 6.83 percent respectively alongside JV.
  • In a much smaller sample size of not even 400 minutes, Brandon Clarke’s scoring and usage rates both tanked by double digits with JV on the court. 
  • Using the “Shot Quality” metric, there wasn’t really a change among his teammates.
  • At rim or 3pt shot frequency was same for DIllon, 4-6 percentage points worse for Morant, Melton, Jackson, and Anderson (slightly better for Tyus Jones)

Where does Jonas rank among his peers in the league? 

I pulled the data for the centers with the largest load of minutes in the NBA. There were 47 players that basketball-reference classified as centers that played over 1,000 minutes in 2019-20. On average, this parameter included players who put in at least 15 minutes per game. Jonas played ___ minutes and so I drew the line at an even 1k to give us a decent perspective of how he compares to like-positioned players with a similar workload.  

  • 7th in PER (22.2)
  • 7th in rebounds per game (11.3)
  • 4th in total rebound percentage (22.5%)
  • 12th in usage rate (21.5%)
  • 23rd in three point attempt rate (12.3%)
  • 35th in defensive box plus-minus (plus .2)
  • 19th in blocks per game (1.1)
  • 8th in offensive box plus-minus (plus 2.2)
  • 13th in points per game (14.9)
  • 19th in effective field goal percentage (60.6%)

Here are some additional rankings that show what percentile he ranked in each category among all centers (not just those who played over 1,000 minutes). This is per the excellent NBA stats site

  • 77th percentile in points per 100 shot attempts (126.2)
  • 61st percentile in block rate (2%)
  • 78th percentile in effective field goal percentage
  • 90th percentile shooting in the short-mid range area and 73rd percentile at the rim. He took 51% of his shots from the former range and 34% from the latter – which was a very high rate comparatively, demonstrating his ability to bully the opposition down low.

Is Jonas good for the Grizzlies?

The current iteration of the Grizzlies play at a pace that is lightyears faster than the teams of old. As you would expect, the lumbering center slightly limits the pace that the Grizzlies are able to play at when he is in the game. For the season, the Grizzlies owned the 6th fastest pace and he slowed them by a pair of possessions per contest. 

Let’s look at some areas I felt were notable when looking at team on/off metrics:

  • The Grizzlies had three fewer assist points per 100 possessions with Jonas on the floor. 
  • They took fewer free throws per 100 possessions and earned less first chance points per 100 possessions. 
  • The opposition took 5% more shots at the rim without him in the game and their at rim FG% was 3% points worse with JV anchoring the paint.
  • Memphis “shot quality” was essentially unchanged on both offense and defense regardless of if JV was playing or not. 
  • As expected, the Grizzlies were better on the boards in essentially every area with JV in the game.
  • As far as team scoring, Memphis’ points per 100 possessions was virtually unchanged regardless of if Valanciunas was playing at the time or not.

In bullet-point fashion, let’s take a gander at the top lineups that Valanciunas was utilized in last season. I’ve also added in my own comments for each lineup to add some color and a point of reference.

  • Lineup #1: Morant, Brooks, Crowder, Jackson Jr., Valanciunas
    • To get a good idea of how Valanciunas fits into the Grizzlies scheme, we should start at the top. The most used lineup from all last season of course included the big fella. With 413 minutes played together, this bunch earned a net rating of plus -6.3 per 100 possessions. This was exactly the net rating of the LA Clippers and Boston Celtics from last season, who won 49 and 48 games respectively. To give you an idea of how up and down the Grizzlies could be last year, their final team net rating during their 34 win season was minus -1.0.
    • For the whole season, only seven teams produced lineup combinations that exceeded the 413 minutes of this unit. Out of those seven lineups, Memphis had the fifth best group. The teams whose heavy minute lineups that performed better were all playoff teams, while the worse teams all failed to reach the playoffs.
  • Lineup #2: Morant, Brooks, Anderson, Jackson Jr., Valanciunas
    • Lets move to the Grizzlies second most used lineup last season, which played 152 minutes together and notched a net rating of minus -11.5. One thing to note about this particular grouping is that the assist percentages plummeted compared to other high-volume and more successful lineups that Taylor Jenkins put together.
  • Lineup #3: Morant, Melton, Brooks, Anderson, Valanciunas
    • This brings us to our third lineup with heavy JV minutes. This team shared the floor for 133 minutes during the regular season and unsurprisingly was the stingiest of all the aforementioned lineups on the defensive end. It was a much slower lineup, with a pace a shade under 100, but still efficient with an offensive rating of 108.4. While JV is not necessarily a  defensive anchor, the strong supporting cast of versatile and intelligent wings allowed for this lineup to experience some success. 
  • Lineup #4: Jones, Brooks, Crowder, Jackson Jr., Valanciunas
    • This lineup didn’t play too much together, only notching 61 minutes before Crowder was shipped to Miami, but the results they produced were very underwhelming. Together, these five played fast and free, but not efficient. Without a go-to creator in Morant, this group struggle to put points on the board. Tyus Jones is a great backup point guard who can give you spot minutes as a starter, but nothing can replace the electric way Morant plays and creates opportunities for those around him – especially for guys who struggle to create on their own. I’m looking at you Dillon Brooks.

Wrapping it up

If you have had eyes on the Grizzlies, then these numbers pretty much confirm your suspicions. What we can surmise from this exercise is that Valanciunas is an extremely effective scorer, and a high-level rebounder. As a whole, the Grizzlies play at about the same overall level with or without Valanciunas on the floor. It is important to note that since he typically plays against the opposition’s starters, this metric is a little skewed because we are unable to quantify how Memphis would play without him in the starting lineup. The majority of the time that he is off the floor, the Grizzlies bench unit is in and wreaking havoc on other team’s backups. 

One concern is how Jaren Jackson is negatively impacted when playing with JV. Since Jaren is one of the key pieces of the Grizzlies’ future, you would like to see those two finding a way to compliment each other better. The problem is that Jaren’s access to driving lanes into the paint is severely restricted when Jonas is playing. However, I think that this season, we will see Taylor Jenkins come up with a more creative offensive structure that allows both of them to thrive. Though it’s not cool and hip to have a bruising center these days in the NBA, I still believe there is value in having someone who can bully teams down low and limit second chance points while earning easy buckets on the other end of the floor.

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