The game of basketball has been going through some changes over the past few years. It’s shifted away from traditional post play and become more perimeter-oriented. Good perimeter shooting has always been a staple of the game, but it seems as if it’s emphasized even more now.
There is no more Shaquille O’Neal or Hakeem Olajuwon or Patrick Ewing or Tim Duncan roaming the middle as they did 20 years ago. Big men are increasingly on the perimeter shooting three-point shots. Most teams in the NBA have a big man who can stretch the floor and knock down perimeter jumpers.
So there are a few traditional big men left, very few, but they are there. In this day and age where small ball and three-pointers reign, Jonas Valanciunas is a bit of a throwback. While he’s incorporated the three-point shot into his offensive repertoire, his bread and butter is still the back-to-basket game.
Valanciunas is in his first full season with the Memphis Grizzlies after being traded from the Toronto Raptors around last season’s trade deadline. The Grizzlies are one of the younger teams in the NBA with one of the brightest young cores.
It’s been a bit of a different role for Valanciunas, who was once the young guy on the Raptors. He’s still relatively young himself at 27, but compared to the majority of the team, he’s something of an elder statesman.
“I’ve seen a lot of different guys, I’ve seen good moments and tough moments. I can share my experience and share my story. I’ve seen it all,” Valanciunas told Basketball Insiders. “It’s been good. We have a great, young group of guys. They know how to approach themselves and how to be professionals. It’s fun in this locker room. We have a lot of fun.”
This has been quite the year for Valanciunas. The Grizzlies are defying expectations and currently sit in eighth place in the Western Conference. Valanciunas’ play is a big part of that. He’s putting up 14.7 points per game on a career-high 58.1 percent shooting from the field. He’s also grabbing a career-best 11.1 rebounds per game, including almost three offensive boards per night.
He’s been on a tear as of late. With both Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke out of the lineup with injuries, it’s been Valanciunas who has stepped his game up. In a most recent win over the Atlanta Hawks, he put up 27 points and 17 rebounds. Before that, he gave the Dallas Mavericks 14 points and 11 rebounds.
When the Grizzlies snapped a five-game losing streak by beating the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 29, Valanciunas had 22 points and 19 rebounds. The Grizzlies have gone 4-1 in their last five games, with Valanciunas averaging 17.4 points and 15.6 rebounds during that stretch.
While he’s seen the league shift towards more of a perimeter-oriented game, he still believes his post play is relevant in the NBA.
“I think so, especially in playoff games. You’ve got to have it all, you’ve got to have it as a weapon,” Valanciunas told Basketball Insiders. “That’s a weapon you can use in tough moments and tough stretches and stuff like that. It’s useful still.”
Having to adjust to not having Jackson or Clarke in the lineup, the Grizzlies have trotted out a two-big lineup at times with Valanciunas at center and Gorgui Dieng at power forward. In terms of size and length, it’s one of the biggest lineups in the NBA.
Dieng also came into the league as more of a traditional post player, but has shifted his game to become more of an outside shooting threat. Regardless, he can still score in the paint and be just as tough on the glass as Valanciunas.
If the Grizzlies manage to hold on to the eighth spot, they’ll likely face the Lakers in the first round — a team that has no shortage of size. While they haven’t had too much experience with the Valanciunas/Dieng combo, Valanciunas has already liked what he’s seen.
“We’re short on the rotation so we have to try different stuff and try different matchups,” Valanciunas told Basketball Insiders. “The way we’ve been playing, I think it’s been working pretty well.”
And although Valanciunas has maintained his back-to-the-basket play, he is not immune to the changing game. He came into the NBA as a low post scorer, but during his time in Toronto, he starting developing a three-point shot.
He doesn’t shoot many threes, he averages only about one attempt per game; when he does shoot them, he’s rather efficient. He’s a career 36.1 percent shooter from deep and he’s knocking them down at a 36.7 percent clip this season.
For him, it’s a good weapon to have to keep pace with the current league.
“I’m trying to mix it up, I’m trying to shoot the three. Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn’t,” Valanciunas told Basketball Insiders. “When it’s not working, I go back to more inside shooting and go back to practice. But I’m getting more and more comfortable with shooting the three. I’m trying to elevate my game to more things.”
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