MikeCheck: As chairman of boards, Valanciunas anchors Grizzlies through career’s most prolific stretch

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – When it comes to snagging rebounds, few players in the NBA are on a more prolific tear right now than Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas.

Just don’t bother talking individual stats with the 7-foot Lithuanian big man. Not unless you want to essentially get boxed out and penned under the rim as Valanciunas explains why he’d much rather discuss collective team results.

So it stands to reason Valanciunas is in a more accommodating mood now that Memphis notched consecutive wins on the heels of a five-game losing streak coming out of last month’s All-Star break. That turnaround coincides with a career-best spike in production as Valanciunas has raised his game to compensate for injuries that left a huge void in the frontcourt.

The Grizzlies (30-31) are now two weeks into their adjustment process amid the absences of starting power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. and top backup forward Brandon Clarke. Both are expected to remain sidelined for the duration of the Grizzlies’ three-game trip that continues Wednesday against the Nets and wraps up Friday against the Mavericks.

It’s not hurting our team as much now, but still – however long they’re going to be out, somebody’s got to step up and do their job, do more, do as much as we can together and wait for them to come back healthy.

Jonas Valanciunas

But after stumbling initially without them, the Grizzlies are regaining their footing largely because Valanciunas has strongly stood his ground in the paint. Over the last three games, the eighth-year veteran has averaged 16.7 points and 19.7 rebounds while shooting 55.5 percent overall from the field, 50 percent on three-pointers and converting 100 percent on free throws.

The 59 combined rebounds Valanciunas grabbed against the Kings, Lakers and Hawks are most by a player over any three-game span in franchise history. And in Monday’s blowout win in Atlanta, Valanciunas tallied 15 points and 15 boards to notch his 30th double-double of the season.

Jonas Valanciunas pregame introduction
ATLANTA, GA – MARCH 2: Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the Memphis Grizzlies gets introduced before the game against the Atlanta Hawks. Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images.

“We’re down two great players right now,” Valanciunas said as the Grizzlies pull together in the absences of Jackson and Clarke, who combine to average nearly 30 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks a game. “It’s not hurting our team as much now, but still – however long they’re going to be out, somebody’s got to step up and do their job, do more, do as much as we can together and wait for them to come back healthy.”

The onus has fallen mainly on Jonas. But as the Grizzlies proved in their most lopsided victory of the season on Monday, every available player has rallied together to contribute to the cause. Now, the team returns to action against the Nets looking to extend momentum from Saturday’s 105-88 home win over the Lakers and Monday’s 127-88 road victory against the Hawks.

A franchise-record nine players scored in double figures against Atlanta as the Grizzlies joined the Bucks as the NBA’s lone teams this season to hold consecutive foes to 88 or fewer points. And Valanciunas’ toughness and tenacity in the paint has provided a sturdy foundation as Memphis tries to strengthen its hold on the eighth and final playoff seed in the West.

“It’s recognizing how he can be an anchor, that mentality of how he can go out there and play full force on both ends of the floor,” Jenkins said of Valanciunas shouldering a larger load in recent games. “He’s playing some longer stretches with a couple of guys out, but I think that mentality allows him to go out there and realize what he can do to impact this game. And also, he’s just playing to his strengths. He’s been playing at a high level these last few games, and we’re going to need him even more moving forward.”

If you want to be good defensively and go farther in this process, you’ve got to do certain things. So, I’m just taking great pride in boxing out, being physical, playing tough, being active and getting those rebounds. That’s my job.

Jonas Valanciunas

Despite his size and stature, it’s easy to overlook Valanciunas in the midst of a surprising season for the Grizzlies. The team’s ‘NXTGen’ slogan is a nod to the roster’s young core of Jackson, Clarke and NBA Rookie of the Year frontrunner Ja Morant. The Grizzlies have also made nearly a dozen trades or transactions over the past 14 months, including Monday’s move to sign veteran swingman Anthony Tolliver to a 10-day contract to add a needed three-point shooter.

But Valanciunas is hardly a forgotten man in the mix as he’s responded with a career season after the Grizzlies made him a major priority last summer in free agency. He’s in the first year of a three-year, $45 million deal he signed to remain with Memphis after initially being acquired at last season’s trade deadline from Toronto in exchange for Marc Gasol.

At the time, Valanciunas wasn’t certain what to expect after agreeing to stick with a team that underwent major changes in the front office and was headed into a roster makeover. But the 27-year-old experienced big man was certain of what he’d offer in return.

“You’ve got to rebound, because rebounding is the last phase of your defense,” Valanciunas insisted. “If you want to be good defensively and go farther in this process, you’ve got to do certain things. So, I’m just taking great pride in boxing out, being physical, playing tough, being active and getting those rebounds. That’s my job.”

He’s playing some longer stretches with a couple of guys out, but I think that mentality allows him to go out there and realize what he can do to impact this game. And also, he’s just playing to his strengths. He’s been playing at a high level these last few games, and we’re going to need him even more moving forward.

Taylor Jenkins

And few in the league are doing it more relentlessly than the man in Memphis.

Valanciunas’ season-high 25 rebounds in Friday’s loss over the Kings were the most in the league by any player in a game this season. His 30 double-doubles through 58 games this season are already the most he’s ever collected in any season of his career. Those 30 double-doubles are also tied for 12th-most in the league this season. Among that list, Valanciunas is the only NBA player with at least 30 double-doubles averaging fewer than 30 minutes a game.

Valanciunas has averaged 14.0 rebounds per game since the All-Star break, which ranks third in the league in that span. And his 4.6 offensive boards a game are second-most in the NBA.

Jonas Valanciunas, Josh Jackson, and Marcus Morris
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 24: Marcus Morris Sr. #31 of the Los Angeles Clippers fights for position against Jonas Valanciunas #17 and Josh Jackson #20 of the Memphis Grizzlies during the first half of a game at Staples Center. Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images.

“We know exactly how important J.V. is to us; we know we’ve got one of the best centers in the league leading us into battle down there every night,” Jackson recently said of Valanciunas. “He makes it easier for me to do certain things in my game, and it’s the same way for me with him. We all just try to feed off how hard he’s playing in there every night.”

Jackson, who has missed the past four games with a sprained knee, has progressed in recent workouts and is expected to be reevaluated at the end of this week. Clarke has missed the past three games with a quad injury and an update on his status is likely coming in that timeframe.

In the meantime, Gorgui Dieng has seen his role expand off the bench as the second center/power forward in the rotation behind Valanciunas. Dieng is coming off his first double-double since he was added at the trade deadline last month, when he finished with a team-high 17 points and 10 rebounds off the bench Monday.

He makes it easier for me to do certain things in my game, and it’s the same way for me with him. We all just try to feed off how hard he’s playing in there every night.

Jaren Jackson Jr.

Contributing in productive ways has been contagious the past two games.

“I feel everybody is here for a reason, because they’ve been good enough to get here,” reserve forward Josh Jackson said. “So you just have to find where you fit in … find a role to play.”

It’s tough to find anyone who knows their role more than Valanciunas, who is averaging a career-best 11.0 rebounds a game this season, good for ninth overall in the NBA. But he’s also stretched his game out to become an effective three-point threat, having knocked down 37.1 percent of a career-high 78 attempts from beyond the arc this season.

“The key word is consistency,” Jenkins added. “He’s just been giving consistent effort all season. It’s helped him expand his game on the offensive end. I’m a big believer in having someone that anchors your defense. And the fact he’s really elevated his game since the turn of the year, blocking shots, protecting the paint, rotations, altering shots that may not show up in the box score and, obviously, the last few games, the 20-rebound efforts, that’s just a credit to him.”

Jonas Valanciunas protects the ball
MEMPHIS, TN – FEBRUARY 29: Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the Memphis Grizzlies grabs the rebound against the Los Angeles Lakers. Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images.

In the process, the Grizzlies have gone from one of the least productive rebounding teams in the league before Valanciunas arrived to ranking seventh in the NBA entering March. Offensively, Memphis has ranked at or near the top in points in the paint all season as well.

But the grittiest of all Grizzlies is far less interested in rankings.

It’s all about results.

He’s just been giving consistent effort all season. It’s helped him expand his game on the offensive end. I’m a big believer in having someone that anchors your defense. And the fact he’s really elevated his game since the turn of the year, blocking shots, protecting the paint, rotations, altering shots that may not show up in the box score and, obviously, the last few games, the 20-rebound efforts, that’s just a credit to him.

Taylor Jenkins

“It’s not an individual sport, so winning is ultimately what matters,” Valanciunas declared. “That’s why we’re here. Winning is the first priority. We’re in playoff position and playing hard. We’re also a young team that’s had some ups and downs; it’s been a roller-coaster. But we’re learning and growing together. And it’s been fun going about it this way.”

Through all the ups and downs, these resilient Grizzlies keep finding a way to regroup.

That’s mainly because Valanciunas is always in position to rebound.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.