MEMPHIS – After pushing through his first scrimmage sessions in more than two weeks, Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas emerged completely exhausted but also fully encouraged.
He even had a few wisecracks.
“I was joking around with my teammates,” Valanciunas said through his wide, full-bearded grin. “This is Day One of my training camp. So yeah, you cannot ride a (stationary) bicycle and get in shape. Playing is a different shape. But I’ve been in these situations before, and I’ll work through it.”
Indications are Valanciunas will be at work in the middle of the Grizzlies’ rotation on opening night in Miami. After sitting out all of the preseason as a precaution to rest a sore foot, Valanciunas joined teammates for a second consecutive practice on Tuesday before the Grizzlies departed for Wednesday’s season opener against the Heat.
Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said Valanciunas’ playing time will be managed conservatively in his return to game action, with the 7-footer’s minutes gradually increasing over time. Valanciunas’ status is expected to be updated after the team’s morning morning shootaround in Miami. Jenkins would not reveal whether he plans to start Valanciunas on Wednesday, but said he wants to see how the eighth-year veteran responds to a workload and recovery schedule leading into the game.
The initial returns from Monday’s practice were positive.
“Jonas is actually in a great spot,” Jenkins said as the Grizzlies regrouped from a 3-2 preseason and finalized their 15-man roster. “He and I were talking, and he’s got to get his game legs right. Everyone else pretty much got four or five preseason games in, and he’s got to catch up in that area. But for us, schematically, knowing what to do offensively and defensively, he’s been locked in. At practice, it was like he didn’t miss a beat. He was great.”
Valanciunas had been relegated to conditioning drills and rest since the opening week of training camp, when he took a stumble after an inadvertent collision on the second day of practice. Tests ruled out any significant damage, but the Grizzlies chose to err on the side of caution and held Valanciunas out of all five preseason games. Valanciunas entered training camp just a few weeks removed from seeing extensive action while leading Lithuania through the FIBA World Cup tournament in China.
I’ve been itching to get back out there with him, just because we have good chemistry anyway and it’s pretty much easy to play with him. Coach makes it easy, and I think it’s cool. (Valanciunas) is a vet and he gets basketball. He’ll be able to adapt to anything.Jaren Jackson Jr.
As a result, the Grizzlies planned to proactively manage Valanciunas’ workload entering the season anyway. Jenkins opened the preseason by naming Valanciunas, Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. as three players he already settled on as starters. It was not immediately clear if Valanciunas opened this week at practice with a first unit that has also included Dillon Brooks and Jae Crowder on the wings.
Rookie power forward Brandon Clarke started each of the four preseason games he played, with Jackson sliding over to the center spot in Valanciunas’ absence. Count Jackson among those most thrilled about the prospect of having the rugged, 265-pound Valanciunas back in tow to battle bigger opponents.
The Grizzlies face an adjustment period in the post while getting acclimated to the “five-out” offensive system Jenkins has installed in his first season as coach. The scheme is predicated on increased pace, floor spacing and versatility along the perimeter. Because of late-season injuries, Valanciunas and Jackson only played two games together last season after Valanciunas was acquired from Toronto in the February trade deadline deal that sent Marc Gasol to the Raptors.
Considering Valanciunas and Jackson didn’t play together during the preseason, their first opportunity to develop some real continuity beyond practice will come as soon as Wednesday.
“It was great to get up and down with him a little bit,” Jackson said of working alongside Valanciunas this week. “I’ve been itching to get back out there with him, just because we have good chemistry anyway and it’s pretty much easy to play with him. Coach makes it easy, and I think it’s cool. (Valanciunas) is a vet and he gets basketball. He’ll be able to adapt to anything.”
Jackson insists the two big men have been studying one another’s game long enough to know how to be compatible.
“There might be a few little things (to tweak),” Jackson said of adjustments he may need to make to accommodate Valanciunas. “With his presence inside, I can do more guarding (power forwards) than (centers). Offensively, he likes to go to his right hand over his left shoulder. Obviously, there are times when I want to get to the other block and we’ll balance off each other that way. If I’m outside, he can be inside and stuff like that. I’m able to complement him in different ways.”
My strength is rebounding and being a big body in the paint. And that’s what I’m going to do – try to protect that paint and rebound, be an inside scorer. That’s what I’m going to bring.Jonas Valanciunas
While working out recently, Valanciunas has been adapting his game to include far more three-point shooting. He traveled with the team on last week’s preseason trip and spent time before games working out from beyond the arc with assistant coaches. Jenkins expects all five players on the floor at any given time to be live threats to shoot open three-pointers.
Valanciunas, who has attempted only 126 threes in his seven NBA seasons, said his comfort from that range in Memphis’ new system “is getting there” as he works his way back into game shape. But his primary goal is to regain his rhythm from the second half of last season, when he averaged 19.9 points and 10.7 rebounds over the 19 games he played after arriving in Memphis.
We’ll be smart with him. Obviously, we wanted to take a conservative approach with him in the preseason and work him through the performance team. Everyone is on the same page with how we’re going to manage his minutes early and, gradually over time, get him to where he’s going to be for the majority of the season.Taylor Jenkins
“I’ve played high quality basketball not too long ago, so I’m not too far away, like if missing five or six months,” Valanciunas said of his breakout play to finish last season followed by a dominant stint at the FIBA World Cup. “My strength is rebounding and being a big body in the paint. And that’s what I’m going to do – try to protect that paint and rebound, be an inside scorer. That’s what I’m going to bring.”
That’s also exactly what the Grizzlies brought him back to do. Valanciunas signed a three-year, $45 million contract in free agency over the summer to return to Memphis. He’s eager to get up to speed.
“We’ll see how he responds, and we’ll be good to go,” Jenkins said. “We’ll be smart with him. Obviously, we wanted to take a conservative approach with him in the preseason and work him through the performance team. Everyone is on the same page with how we’re going to manage his minutes early and, gradually over time, get him to where he’s going to be for the majority of the season.”
And that’s right back in the middle of all the physical action.
“Feels good to be back out there playing, doing something,” Valanciunas said. “I just want to be part of it. I’m here to play basketball; not to (only) sit on the sideline and cheer the guys up. That’s a big part, too. But I want to be in the game. Finally, I’m back taking steps. Slow and steady.”
At this pace, Valanciunas is on course to help the Grizzlies open the season on solid ground.
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