Jonas Valanciunas shoots over Utah's Royce O'Neale

Jonas Valanciunas Q and A with Michael Wallace

by Jim Eichenhofer

You probably already knew that incoming New Orleans center Jonas Valanciunas is a force in the paint at 6-foot-11, 265 pounds, but did you know about his fishing and cooking skills? Grind City Media writer Michael Wallace, who covered Valanciunas over the past two-plus seasons in Memphis, joined to discuss the Lithuanian and his impact with the Grizzlies.

Valanciunas is joining New Orleans as part of a multi-player trade that was officially announced this weekend by the Pelicans: Even though he’s played nine years in the NBA, Valanciunas appears to still be improving. For example, last season he set career highs in scoring and rebounding, despite only a slight increase in playing time from the previous season. What were some of the areas you saw him make the most strides in his two-plus years with Memphis?

Wallace: That’s easy! He’s embraced the challenge of stretching his shooting range to the three-point line. His durability this past season was also remarkable, considering Jonas had stretches in his Toronto days and in his first Memphis season when he was sidelined by nagging injuries. He seems to be getting stronger, more versatile and effective with age. Plus, he’s first-team All-NBA with his beard game! While averaging roughly one three-point attempt per game, he shot 37 percent from beyond the arc last season, part of a career-long trend in which he’s gotten more comfortable firing from the perimeter. What were the factors behind him shooting more often in Memphis compared to earlier in his career with Toronto?

Wallace: Taylor Jenkins came in as coach two years ago and demanded that everyone on the roster improve to become live options from three-point range. And everybody meant Jonas Valanciunas, who immediately worked on his shot days after signing the extension in Memphis. Jonas began and ended every practice session and shootaround by working on threes, particularly from the top of the key. Beyond his three-point shooting – a minor piece of his offensive arsenal – what were some of the reasons why he became such a potent scorer in Memphis?

Wallace: No one attacks the offensive glass more relentlessly in the league than Jonas. He and Ja Morant had a magnetic connection when it came to Morant’s drives and dives to the basket. When those floaters or shots fell off the rim – sometimes Ja intentionally tossed it off the backboard – Jonas was always in the right spot at the right time for putbacks. It’s one reason the Grizzlies led the league much of last season in second-chance scoring. New Orleans has experienced uncanny team success vs. Memphis over the past two seasons (5-1), but Valanciunas has played very well against the Pelicans. Last season, two of his 19 games of 20-plus points came vs. NOLA, including a 23-point night while returning from injury. Can you pinpoint any reason why he’s excelled against the Crescent City?

Wallace: I saw it the other way. Jonas definitely got his numbers, but he always struggled when matched up or caught up in cross-matches trying to defend Zion Williamson. But then again, find me a player in the league who hasn’t tasted defeat in that scenario. But to your point, Jonas embraces physical, brutal battles in the paint. And he and Steven Adams were essentially battling rams in the paint. And that’s when Jonas excels, particularly because of his soft touch and arsenal of moves around the basket. What are the most underrated aspects of Valanciunas’ game?

Wallace: Jonas doesn’t get enough credit for being a wonderful passer for a big man, and he’s gotten much better in that area when facing double-team coverages. His footwork is also top-notch. His baseline, turnaround jumper is fluid. And never underestimate his ability to carry the offensive load for extended possessions when the perimeter scoring options get bogged down. What are the areas he’s still working to improve upon as he enters his 30s?

Wallace: Jonas has to get better in space as a defender in pick-and-roll situations. He defers to drop defensive coverages time after time, and that leaves crafty offensive players with adequate looks and ample space in the mid-range game, especially around the free-throw line. Jonas needs to trust his backside defenders to cover for him when he covers for others when defending pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-off sets. What’s one thing even avid basketball fans might be surprised to know about Valanciunas?

Wallace: He’s a fantastic fisherman and a fabulous cook, so there will be opportunities to flex both of those skills in one of the tastiest cities in the NBA. He also tells it like it is, and only wants to win. He’s a double-double machine, but takes no pride in putting up big numbers in losing efforts. You’re better off not even asking him about his production in games that don’t result in victories. You’ll catch his wrath!

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