Jonas Valanciunas posts up against Karl-Anthony Towns

Jonas Valanciunas caps highly productive road trip with 20-20 game in Minnesota win

by Jim Eichenhofer

Warrior. Monster. Beast.

Less than a week into Jonas Valanciunas’ tenure as a New Orleans Pelican, the 6-foot-11 center is already being described in the aggressive adjectives reserved for NBA bigs who dominate the paint.

Those labels all applied Monday, when the summer trade addition powered the Pelicans and head coach Willie Green to their first win of 2021-22, behind a 22-point, 23-rebound performance. The native of Lithuania officially posted the sixth 20-20 regular season game of his NBA career (a seventh occurred in the 2021 Western Conference play-in round, when he notched 23-23 vs. San Antonio).

With New Orleans trying to crack the win column without the injured Zion Williamson and Josh Hart, the Pelicans needed Valanciunas to carry a significant load, resulting in him playing 39:19, his most minutes in a game since March 2019. When they needed a big basket, they went to Valanciunas and Brandon Ingram to close out a 107-98 victory at Minnesota.

“Jonas has been huge for us,” Green said. “I’ve had several talks with him, and I told him, ‘We’re just going to ride you, big fella.’ He played 39 minutes tonight. He actually called a timeout on his own because he was so tired. I just looked at him and told him to just sit down the whole (timeout). But he’s a warrior.”

“He’s just a monster,” guard Devonte’ Graham said. “We kept telling him we’re going to feed him the ball, because he attracts the defense, they have to collapse, and he opens things up. Obviously the rebounds speak for itself. He had a hell of game.”

Valanciunas struggled in his Pelicans debut at home Wednesday vs. Philadelphia, shooting 3/19 from the field, but during a three-game road trip, he averaged 20.0 points, 16.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. He shot 54 percent from the field – mixing in rugged paint buckets with short mid-range jumpers – and a perfect 18/18 at the foul line.

“It gives us another dimension, knowing we can throw the ball down to him and he can score any time he wants to,” Ingram said. “(Valanciunas’ road trip) just shows he’s a professional, he’s ready for the moment and he cares about the team. I’m sure he didn’t like his performance (against Philadelphia). He’s a veteran, so he had to show the young guys how to be ready every single game.”

While wrestling with Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns for a second straight game Monday, Valanciunas was whistled for a fifth foul during the fourth quarter. Green was asked if he considered subbing Valanciunas out of the game temporarily to avoid a potential sixth-foul disqualification.

“It was a quick thought – that quickly went out of my head,” Green responded, smiling. “He’s just so important right now with our group, especially down the stretch… it’s just where we are as a team.”

Now in his 10th NBA season, Valanciunas is accustomed to playing beyond mid-April, having reached the playoffs six times and twice participated in the play-in round with Memphis. He was pleased to help push the Pelicans into the winner’s circle, but acknowledged that Monday’s victory was only a first step.

“I’m happy for (Green), that was his first win,” Valanciunas said Monday, prior to the team catching a late flight from Minneapolis back to the Crescent City. “I’m happy for him, I’m happy for us. One (Pelicans player) said we can celebrate until midnight, but then we have to forget about it and move on. We can’t get too excited. Long season ahead of us. One is not enough. We need more.”

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