The Memphis Grizzlies will retain their starting center in NBA Free Agency, but what must they be wary about moving forward with Jonas Valanciunas?
The Memphis Grizzlies moved quickly in re-signing their starting center, Jonas Valanciunas, as Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN initially reported he would remain in Memphis on a three-year, $45 million dollar deal. The big man played well for the Grizzlies after he was acquired on February 7th in the trade that sent long-time franchise cornerstone Marc Gasol to Toronto, averaging nearly 20 points per game while shooting 54.5% from the field.
It seems clear Memphis is stuck in neutral. Beale Street Bears‘ own Ed Wilson laid out his own case on why Memphis should let the big man walk, and I agree. Valanciunas is a talented big man, but he is dinosaur in the modern NBA. The rise of motion offenses have led to the phasing out of the pure back-to-the-basket scorer, which is Valanciunas’ specialty. However, the greatest impact of this signing will be the loss of touches for the prospects the Grizzlies currently have.
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With a usage rating hovering around 30, something typically reserved for players the likes of Russell Westbrook, he is taking away valuable possessions from Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja Morant, and Brandon Clarke. The two rookies — Morant and Clarke — will likely be learning on the fly, playing big minutes early on in their careers, and in Ja’s case, likely starting. Every possession for these three prospects should be viewed as a learning opportunity. Having a dinosaur who will chew up countless possessions in the Grizzlies’ offense could disrupt the development of the young core, something the Grizzlies should be wary of.
Aside from taking away valuable possessions on the offensive end from the top-three prospects, Valanciunas’ deal represents a misfire on the new regime in Memphis. Long gone are the days of lumbering, one-dimensional big men. The modern NBA offense revolves around ball movement, motion, and shooting. Valanciunas provides none of those. Jonas is a career 36% shooter from deep, and a meager 27% shooter from deep during his short tenure with the Grizzlies thus far.
A closer look into the advanced metrics have Valanciunas as a slight negative overall on offense, showing us once again how his game no longer fits the modern NBA. Valanciunas’ value as a player overall is only saved by his defense, which brings his overall BPM (box plus-minus) to a reasonable 1.6, making him a slightly above-average contributor on a nightly basis in the association.
Valanciunas is not the star his 19-game cameo in Memphis teased him to be. At best, he is a role player on a contending team. However, as the situation in Memphis seems to be headed for a near complete reboot and re-brand from the days of Grit and Grind into a more modern offense, Valanciunas represents a holdover, someone the Grizzlies were obviously comfortable with and has an overall positive contribution on the floor.
While he is not deserving of the aforementioned usage rate, which should hopefully decline with the arrival of Ja Morant, he is a reliable low post option who could be a key piece of a revitalized Grizzlies team in a few seasons. Jonas is not the splash free agent signing that will turn things around in Memphis and avoid a rebuild, but he will be a steadying presence within the offense.
While I do believe this signing is an attempt to stay out of the NBA cellar and somewhat relevant, Valanciunas is not going to move the needle much, and it is almost a certainty that Memphis will remain in the lottery for the 2019-2020 NBA season, Valanciunas is what he is, a throwback big who every day grows less and less valuable in the modern NBA.
10 to 15 years ago, we would be looking at Jonas as a splash free agent signing, a volume low post scorer who is also a plus defender, but today, he is a relic of the past, and someone the Grizzlies should consider not viewing as their go-to option on offense on a nightly basis. To end on a positive note, it is completely possible Valanciunas will develop a semi-reliable three-point shot, as was the case with Brook Lopez a few seasons ago. Yet, he was an outlier, and not the norm.