Grizzlies’ Valanciunas embracing leadership role with talented core

Toronto Raptors centre Marc Gasol speaks about his time as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies and how different it'll be facing them in the bubble instead of in Memphis.

TORONTO – Including the playoffs, Jonas Valanciunas suited up 513 times for the Toronto Raptors.

Taken fifth overall by Toronto in the 2011 draft, the Lithuanian big man became a polarizing-yet-beloved fixture of the Raptors, whose pump fakes, strong showings against opposing top big men in the league and oftentimes disastrous pick-and-roll defence became the stuff of legend for many Raptors fan.

Then, on Feb. 7, 2019, trade deadline last season, in the blink of an eye, Valanciunas, along with C.J. Miles, Delon Wright and a second-round pick, was traded away to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for three-time all-star and former defensive player of the year Marc Gasol.

A franchise-altering swap for the Raptors as Gasol proved to be the missing link they thought he would be as his defensive presence played a large role in the Raptors’ championship run last year.

Still, up to the time of that trade, Valanciunas had spent more than six seasons in Toronto and was thought of as indentured a figure on the team as Kyle Lowry or Masai Ujiri, and then to go off and see the team that traded you just win the whole damn thing without you would’ve been a bitter pill to swallow for just about every except Valanciunas it would seem.

During Toronto’s post-season opener against the Orlando Magic last year, Valanciunas returned to Toronto to cheer on his old teammates and wish them luck on their playoff run, even if he was no longer part of the team.

“I want to support my guys. The guys have been my family for multiple years, we went through a lot of stuff together so it’s important for me to be here and support them,” Valanciunas told Sportsnet’s Eric Smith on the broadcast of that contest on April 13 last year.

A kind gesture and one that spoke of the kind of bond Valanciunas had with the Raptors organization, but on Sunday, Valanciunas will have to put those warm feelings of nostalgia to the side.

With the playoffs included, Valanciunas has played 599 NBA games and his 600th will mark the first time he ever plays against the Raptors.

A shame that it’ll be taking place in the Orlando bubble instead of the home-and-home series as it was originally intended at the end of March as emotions surely would’ve been running high, especially in Valanciunas’ return to Toronto.

Not to mention, if that game in Toronto had been able to play, Raptors fans likely would’ve been in for a surprise upon their first look at Valanciunas in a little while.

In the midst of, perhaps, his best season as a pro, Valanciunas is averaging 15 points and 11.2 rebounds per game and is shooting a career-best 58.6 per cent from the field. More importantly, Valanciunas’s defence while out in space and when put in the pick-and-roll – his old Achilles heel – has apparently become one of his greatest strengths.

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“There’s so many conversations he has with his bigs about details in pick-and-roll offence or pick-and-roll defence, he’s one of the best communicators out there in our timeouts and our huddles, constantly trying to pick up the spirit of the guys,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said of Valanciunas in a conference call after practice Saturday.

Led by presumptive rookie of the year Ja Morant, the Grizzlies are one of the youngest teams in the NBA and look to have a bright future ahead of them. Valanciunas is one of the more senior members of the team and, as players like Lowry and Jose Calderon did for him before when he was a rookie, Valanciunas has taken a leadership role with this group.

“I think JV has really embraced the leadership opportunity. It’s great when you can kind of look back on your career and identify how you’ve benefited from veteran leadership when he came in as a rookie,” Jenkins said.

By embracing this new role it’s appeared to have helped Valaciunas individually and his team as a whole. A surprise playoff team at the moment, it’s partially thanks to Valanciunas’ steady hand guiding the Grizzlies’ up-and-coming stars that they’ve managed to play as well as they have all season.

And included in this group of talented youngsters Memphis boasts are a pair of Canadians in Dillon Brooks and rookie Brandon Clarke.

An impressive pair who have already become a key part of the Grizzlies’ rotation with Brooks averaging 15.9 points per game while playing hard-nosed defence as one of their starting wings and Clarke putting up 12 points and 5.9 rebounds as a key backup big.

“Both DB and BC have just brought so much to this group,” said Jenkins. “Starting with DB, he’s one of our fiery leaders and he’s one of the most ultimate competitors that I’ve ever been around. A guy that you know is gonna play super hard every single night on both ends of the floor, he more often than not takes on some of the toughest matchups night in and night out, he’s done an unbelievable job of really helping us elevate our defence from a knowledge standpoint.

“…And then BC coming in his rookie year he’s done an unbelievable job facilitating our team offence. … He’s the kind of guy you don’t have to force-feed him the ball, he goes out there and produces off of his teammates and is happy to do so. As long as it leads to good stuff for us on the offensive end he’s willing to do that. And then defensively, what a great team defender with his athleticism, his instincts, being in the right spot more often than not.

“I mean, both those guys have so much to learn, they’re just scratching the surface early in their careers, but both of those guys have been guys that when they play well they’re a huge a boost for our team.”

This Canadian connection the Grizzlies have along with Valanciunas on their roster has made them something of a favourite of die-hard NBA fans across Canada. Hailed by many on social media as Canada’s Western Conference club their history as formerly the Vancouver Grizzlies also helps their case in this regard.

On Friday, the Grizzlies earned their first win in the bubble while wearing the Vancouver throwbacks and they’re expected to wear them again when the face the Raptors on Sunday – who will be in their throwback purple pinstripes from their inaugural season.

It’s sure to be a treat for Canadian basketball fans tuning in – if not just a little bittersweet for fans of the Vancouver Grizzlies – and with Canadian talent on both teams and the intrigue of Valanciunas and Gasol playing against their old teams the game might not be half bad, too.


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