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Power Forwards / Centers

MikeCheck: Grizzlies big-man tandem Jackson and Valanciunas building ‘to become best frontcourt in the NBA’

by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – A Duke education is hardly required to grasp the dynamics of a Grizzlies offense intentionally designed to induce Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas into an identity crisis.

But thankfully, Blue Devils alum Grayson Allen was available to break down the new schemes and concepts in a way that simplified expectations on a basic level.

As part of the installation process for his new offense, first-year coach Taylor Jenkins has diagrammed blue squares at five spots outside the three-point line and another few down the middle of the floor on the main courts at the Grizzlies’ practice facility.

Jackson driving to the hoop

MEMPHIS, TN - Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies shoots the ball against the Indiana Pacers during a pre-season game on October 6, 2018 at FedExForum. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.


Yet those squares mandate an outside-the-box mindset when it comes to traditional understandings of how power forwards and centers are supposed to play in today’s NBA. For instance, Jackson is no longer a power forward and Valanciunas won’t ever be a center again as long as he’s in a Memphis uniform.

Forget what official position any box score indicates for those two.

Just watch them on the boxed floor at any given practice.

“A lot of things in the league now are space and pace, and threes and (attack) the rim on offense,” Allen said of the conceptual transformation that’s been taking place at training camp inside FedExForum. “But, as you know, coach Jenkins has put his own spin on it, in his own way. You see the blue boxes out here? When you have a guy like Jaren on the court, which box do you put him in? He can bring the ball up if he gets a long rebound. Fill the corner. Fill the top. Space it out to the wing. So it’s very, very position-less, and very easy to flow into.”

Already one of the NBA’s most versatile young big men, the 6-foot-11 Jackson didn’t fit into any particular box during a promising rookie season. Now that Jenkins has arrived with a new-aged approach, the plan is to ensure Jackson’s impact checks every box on the court.

And that requires the positions formerly known as power forward and center to be interchangeable in the “five-out” system the Grizzlies are implementing. The ultimate aim is to push Memphis into the top half of the NBA in tempo and pace, with a faster style creating more possessions, which in turn produces greater flow and freedom for multiskilled players.

But, as you know, coach Jenkins has put his own spin on it, in his own way. You see the blue boxes out here? When you have a guy like Jaren on the court, which box do you put him in? He can bring the ball up if he gets a long rebound. Fill the corner. Fill the top. Space it out to the wing. So it’s very, very position-less, and very easy to flow into.
Grayson Allen

The past three Grizzlies teams and coaching staffs have intended, with varying degrees of success, to shift gears and speed up the Grit’N’Grind playing style. But now with a restructured front office, a revamped coaching staff and a retooled roster, this is the first time the Grizzlies have had those three components schematically and philosophically aligned entering a season.

In other words, from key players to peak decision-makers, the Grizzlies are now built for this.

“We wanted to get guys in here you don’t want to put a label on,” Jenkins said of targeting players willing to open up their minds and games. “I don’t have point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards, centers. We see them as guards, wings and bigs. We’re putting bigs in space and position to create like guards. We expect our guards and wings to play and defend every spot on the floor, from the perimeter to the rim. We thrive on being multiple.”

It sounds like a system in which Jackson and the Grizzlies’ other bigs should blossom well beyond what they’ve shown in the past. Jackson, 20, feels he was just scratching the surface of his potential when he became the first rookie in NBA history last season to finish with at least 50 blocks, 50 steals and 50 made threes while shooting better than 50 percent from the field.

A deep thigh bruise led to Jackson being shut down in February after playing just 58 games last season, only two of which he got a chance to play with Valanciunas. Now, they’ve gone through their first training camp together and enter the season healthy and with high expectations.

And without any caps or ceilings on their games.

I don’t have point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards, centers. We see them as guards, wings and bigs. We’re putting bigs in space and position to create like guards. We expect our guards and wings to play and defend every spot on the floor, from the perimeter to the rim. We thrive on being multiple.
Taylor Jenkins

“I grew up in a position-less age of basketball, I guess you want to call it,” Jackson said of the challenge to constantly expand his skills. “I really don’t know positions anymore. Whoever is out there, let’s just run with it. If you’re not learning, then what are you doing? I’m still learning. We’re young and just eager. And we all like to play fast.”

After wrapping up training camp with Saturday’s open scrimmage at Memphis University School, the Grizzlies get their first test in Sunday’s exhibition against Maccabi Haifa at FedExForum. It’s the first of five preseason games for Memphis in preparation of the Oct. 23 regular-season opener at Miami, with the home debut two days later against Chicago.

Jenkins has a deep roster of “bigs” to sort through as he experiments to find productive combinations in the frontcourt. While Jackson and Valanciunas have already been named starters, expect the Grizzlies to play anyone at any moment at any of the “big” spot. Rookie Brandon Clarke has already been used at both forward spots and center in some machinations during training camp scrimmages. That’s been the same case with Bruno Caboclo.

Beyond those four, Memphis also has second-year forward Yuta Watanabe, third-year big man Ivan Rabb and veteran journeyman center Miles Plumlee available to mix and match up front.

In each case, every player was required to expand on some aspect of his game entering camp. For Valanciunas, it meant stepping out of the paint and becoming a live threat from three-point range. Let’s just say it’s been an encouraging work in progress for a player who shot a well-respected 40.5 percent on 74 attempts two years ago but hadn’t made it much of a priority.

Until now.

“You have to adjust to the game a little bit – not saying that I’m all of a sudden going to be shooting 30 threes a game or anything,” Valanciunas assured. “My priority is still inside. The priority is to fight for the rebound and stay inside. But adding that shot to your game is an advantage. Someone leaves you open, that’s three points. That’s an advantage to your team.”

The goal is to be the best frontcourt in the NBA.
Jonas Valanciunas

One of the main reasons Valanciunas decided to return on a three-year, $45 million deal in free agency over the summer was for the chance to see his game continue to grow. Last season, he averaged 19.9 points and 10.7 rebounds in 19 games with Memphis after arriving in the trade deadline deal that sent Marc Gasol to Toronto. It was the most productive stretch of his career.

Valanciunas shooting

NANJING, CHINA - Jonas Valanciunas(R) #17 of Lithuania shoots against Eloy Vargas #11 of Dominican Republic during 2nd round Group L match between Dominican Republic and Lithuania of 2019 FIBA World Cup at Nanjing Youth Olympic Sports Park Gymnasium on September 09, 2019. Photo by Shi Tang/Getty Images.


Now, the endless possibilities of playing alongside Jackson are intriguing. Valanciunas played alongside a similarly skilled and versatile talent in Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis as the two competed for Lithuania at last month’s FIBA World Cup in China. As the two keep building together, Valanciunas set a high bar for the status he and Jackson can achieve in the league.

“We can be very versatile,” Valanciunas said. “The goal is to be the best frontcourt in the NBA.”

Sounds extreme? Not to Jenkins.

Not when he was on a staff in Atlanta five years ago that used a similar offense to send four players to the All-Star game and post a 60-win season. And certainly not last season, when Jenkins was an assistant on a Milwaukee staff that revamped the Bucks’ playing style and transformed that team into the No. 1 seed in the East.

Memphis intends to get there eventually by taking its own unique path.

“Success means to focus on the values that we have internally,” Jackson said. “That’s just to always compete, be together and get better every day. If we focus on those three things, we’re going to be fine. Coach talks and preaches about them, and we don’t focus on anything else. Because if you have tunnel vision with your goals and those certain things, everything else will come together.”

There’s both a big vision and a vision for the Grizzlies’ bigs.

Valanciunas might never shoot threes at the pace of Bucks’ center Brook Lopez.

And Jackson may still be a few years away from dominating a game like reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. But that blueprint and those boxes on the court are in place in Memphis.

And the building process is already taking place.

That’s just to always compete, be together and get better every day. If we focus on those three things, we’re going to be fine. Coach talks and preaches about them, and we don’t focus on anything else. Because if you have tunnel vision with your goals and those certain things, everything else will come together.
Jaren Jackson Jr.

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.

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