Pelicans 2021 preseason profile: Jonas Valanciunas

Most NBA players follow a similar arc of improvement, making their biggest strides in their second and third pro seasons, after learning plenty as rookies. New Orleans offseason trade addition Jonas Valanciunas’ development has been more of a steady, career-long progression. Last season, his ninth in the league, was his best by every statistical measure, with the 6-foot-11 center averaging career highs in scoring (17.1 ppg), rebounding (12.5 rpg) and field-goal percentage (59.2) for Memphis.

Since being drafted No. 5 overall by Toronto, Valanciunas has upped his point production from the previous campaign six different times, but that progress has mostly gone unnoticed – he’s somehow never received a single vote in annual Most Improved Player balloting.

Asked how his best NBA season could come in Year 9, a smiling Valanciunas quipped of himself, “Like a good wine, right?”

Patience with the native of Lithuania proved very fruitful for both the Raptors and Grizzlies, as Valanciunas helped those teams reach the playoffs six times (along with a 2020 play-in berth for Memphis). Coincidentally, his first two postseason appearances overlapped with the final two seasons of Pelicans head coach Willie Green’s playing career.

“Jonas is a big-time enforcer on both ends of the floor,” said Green, who faced Valaciunas in five games as a player, mostly between the Clippers and Raptors. “He’s added a lot to his game – he can shoot the three ball, he’s a dominant force down low, he creates offense for himself and his teammates, so we can run plays through him. He’s a luxury to have.”

“I never stopped working,” explained Valanciunas, who previously played for NBA head coaches Dwane Casey, J.B. Bickerstaff and Taylor Jenkins. “Always expanding my game, always working on something. Every coach has a different mentality, a different playing style. So I’ve tried to adjust myself to certain styles of game. I always looked at it like the sky’s the limit, that I’m never happy with myself, always trying to do more.”

In recent seasons, that’s meant adding a three-point shot to his arsenal (36 percent since 2019-20 on 54 makes), something you might not expect from a burly, 265-pound big, but an element Valanciunas believed was vital as he watched an obvious trend around the NBA.

“The league was changing,” he said. “The league was going toward shooting bigs, so I had to do it. I still want to get better (in perimeter) shooting. It’s not where I want it to be. Being able to knock down the three is a big advantage. When you sit down and look at your game, you try to find the areas where you can improve. That was the area for me.”

Valanciunas has played with several All-Star teammates, but New Orleans’ duo of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram is undoubtedly the most talented frontcourt he’s been part of as a pro. He’s looking forward to seeing what the trio can do in 2021-22. Unfortunately, preseason didn’t offer a sneak preview, with Williamson missing all four games and Ingram only appearing in one.

“I’m really excited,” Valanciunas said of the group’s potential. “We just have to see how we click on the court. We all want to win. Now we have to see it on the floor, that connection.”