MikeCheck: ‘Checking In’ during NBA hiatus with Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas
MEMPHIS – More than two months into its hiatus, the NBA forges ahead with hopes to resume the 2019-20 season as the sports world works its way back from the Coronavirus pandemic.
League officials confirmed negotiations are ongoing with Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando to serve as a single site for a potential resumption of play in July. The Grizzlies and the NBA’s 29 other teams have been idle since play was suspended March 11 amid global safety concerns.
At the time, the Grizzlies had 17 regular-season games remaining and were positioned to make the playoffs for the first time in three years as the eighth seed in the Western Conference. The NBA has yet to detail whether it will complete some or all of the regular season, or proceed directly to a playoff format when the games resume.
In any case, the Grizzlies vow to be ready to pick up where they left off during an encouraging season. Players from across the league have been returning to their home markets in recent days to resume individual, voluntary workouts in preparation for the NBA’s next move.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies continue to prioritize the health, safety and security of the region they call home. Grind City Media has used this space throughout the NBA hiatus to ‘Check In’ with the Grizzlies, their biggest fans and the community as they await a return to game action.
This week’s ‘Check In’ is with center Jonas Valanciunas, who is eager to resume a career season in which he ranks among the NBA’s leaders in rebounds (11.2 rpg) and double-doubles (33).
Grind City Media: How have you and your family managed to get through these past few challenging months while keeping everyone active and safe?
Valanciunas: We’ve been blessed. We have a backyard for the kids to run around and play in. And the weather is nice. It wasn’t like when we were sitting in an apartment and can’t see the daylight (laughs). Everybody wants to get back to the business. You’ve been working through the good and the bad, but we keep moving forward.
GCM: As you’ve split time between Memphis and Miami since the season halted, what’s the process been like in terms of checking in on your extended family in your native Lithuania?
Valanciunas: These days it’s really easy to communicate overseas and check on them often. My mother is from a small town, so she’s staying home and trying to be safe as much as she can. Fortunately, Lithuania didn’t get affected by COVID-19 that much. We’re a small country and they got the situation under control pretty easily, and everything is getting back to normal right now. So everyone from my extended family is safe and I’m happy about that. I hope it’s going to continue that way. I stayed here in the United States the whole time. Travel is pretty restricted these days, so I didn’t want to create any problems in terms of any hassle to get back into the States. I decided to wait and see when there was going to be a decision on the season.
GCM: With the recent clearance to resume voluntary workouts across the league, how much of a relief and reward is it for you to be back in Memphis and working on your game?
Valanciunas: It’s another blessing. Just getting a chance to leave the house and go into a different environment, it’s good for your mental health, too. Seeing friends and being in different environments is important. It’s good to just go and stay in condition. You’re not doing much; just one-on-one workouts. But still, it’s building yourself back into a game rhythm.
GCM: From a conditioning standpoint, how would you compare where you are now to how you felt when the season was suspended? Is this like starting over in a way?
Valanciunas: It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.
GCM: During your time off, what’s something you’re most proud of accomplishing away from the game? What task did you get done that you wouldn’t have otherwise had a chance to do?
Valanciunas: Just the work around the house in general. I had enough time to do a lot of the small work that I didn’t have a chance to do during the season after we moved in. So working the garden or making some decisions with the backyard and having time to do some touch-ups inside the house. I also tried to cook more. I’ve been learning to cook new things. I’m not a good cook, but that’s my passion and I want to cook more. My wife helps me a lot to try to become a better cook. So that’s one project I’ve been kind of working on (laughs).
GCM: So when the Grizzlies have their postseason potluck, what homemade dish can the team count on Jonas Valanciunas to bring?
Valanciunas: Um, well ... One thing I started doing is sushi. I like sushi. It’s kind of not a traditional picnic dish, but I’ve been doing a lot of sushi. So that’s what I’d bring.
GCM: Several of your teammates have said there’s unfinished business left to complete in terms of how well you guys were playing when the season stopped. What’s the motivation level, despite the time off, to pick right up and rekindle that encouraging growth?
Valanciunas: We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit. This sort of offseason – it feels like an offseason – we stayed with the same players for when we come back. Usually, when you start a training camp, you’re dealing with trying to learn new players. We already know each other, and now we know what we’re capable of. So just continue what we’ve been doing and go on.
GCM: This quickly became a close-knit team over the course of this season. How did that translate to the time away during the hiatus? And how much of a challenge will it be to re-establish that chemistry once you all get back together?
Valanciunas: That was important to keep everybody in the loop as we watched film with coach (Taylor Jenkins), talking with teammates, having some interactions. That was important to continue to get to know each other and not lose that chemistry. So the coaches did a great job of keeping us all in the loop, and hopefully soon we’re going to see how it feels to all be back.
GCM: You’ve always been about team results and don’t get caught up on personal statistics. But you’ve put together a career season in terms of rebounding and double-double production this season. What’s clicked so well for you during your first full season with the Grizzlies?
Valanciunas: I just find extra motivation for myself. Last season was kind of up and down. I got traded. A lot of things happened last season and it was kind of unsettled. So this season, I just focused on basketball and on getting my game as good as it can be. And that worked out. The coaches gave me that boost. I did a lot of work with (Grizzlies assistant coach) Vitaly Potapenko and all of the coaches gave me extra stuff to work on my game.
GCM: This young team has bonded with the Memphis fanbase so quickly. Although Grizzlies fans may have to cheer from afar if or when the NBA returns because of health and safety protocols, what’s your message to fans as they maintain that special connection to this team?
Valanciunas: I know it’s tough not being able to get into the building or being in the crowd and have that festive experience. But they’re very important to us, and we’ll do everything we can to keep them in the loop and give them great moments from the games. We hope to see things get back to normal next year. We’re a young team and we’re building this new environment in Memphis, and I hope everything will continue then as it was this year. We can’t wait until that time again when we can see fans in the stands cheering for us. That’s the goal for us.
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