28-year-old Lithuanian Jonas Valančiūnas has been one of the so-called ‘golden generation’ of Lithuanian professional basketball players, having arrived stateside as the fifth overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft. For the last decade, Valančiūnas has plied his trade for both the Toronto Raptors and the Memphis Grizzlies. He has cemented himself has one of the most consistent centers in the NBA. His technical ability with his back to the basket is undeniable.
Having spent several years with the Raptors, Valančiūnas will have been bitterly disappointed to miss out on winning the NBA Finals with his former team-mates. The Utena-born 7ft giant had carved out a reputation as a rebounder and efficient post scorer. However, he was eventually used by the Raptors as a makeweight to secure the services of Marc Gasol. In the meantime, Toronto would go on to claim their inaugural NBA Finals victory just a few months later over the Golden State Warriors.
Although it must have left a bitter taste in Valančiūnas’ mouth, he didn’t dwell on the disappointment of missing out on the NBA Finals. Instead, he’s channelled it into his performances for the Grizzlies. Since signing for Memphis, Valančiūnas has averaged just under 16 points per game, along with 1.2 blocks and an impressive 11 rebounds. He’s proven to be an outstanding foil for the fleet footed Ja Morant.
Will Valančiūnas be squeezed out of Memphis?
It all begs the question as to why there has been increasing speculation regarding Valančiūnas’ future in Memphis all of a sudden. The answer is Jaren Jackson Jr. The previous fourth overall draft pick for the Grizzlies in 2018, Jackson Jr. sustained a torn meniscus in his left knee last August, which has kept him out of action ever since. Despite the injury, Memphis exercised their team option on Jackson Jr. which should probably spark alarm bells for Valančiūnas’ long-term future with the Grizzlies.
Jackson Jr. played the majority of his minutes for Memphis in the center role, prior to his knee injury. 24-year-old Brandon Clarke is also seeing his stock rising steadily within the Grizzlies’ hierarchy while Gorgui Dieng will be incredibly difficult for Memphis to shift given his $17m salary cap hit. It all points to one player being more disposable than the rest – Valančiūnas.
Ironically, the Raptors could be the leading contenders for Valančiūnas’ signature. Following the departure of Spaniard Gasol to the Lakers, they have struggled to find a replacement they can hang their hat on. Fans have grown increasingly frustrated at the time it’s taken for Gasol’s immediate replacement Aron Baynes to settle in with the Raptors. The ageing Australian could be used as part of another makeweight deal to bring Valančiūnas back to Toronto.
Is Toronto back on the cards for Valančiūnas?
A deal involving Baynes and another perimeter scorer in the mould of Norman Powell could be enough to entice Memphis to let their Lithuanian leave. Most sportsbooks would certainly shorten the Raptors’ odds for making next season’s NBA Finals if Valančiūnas is preferred to Baynes. At the present time, the Raptors look unlikely to make inroads on the postseason scene in 2021 if FOX Bet’s futures NBA odds on the Finals are anything to go by. They are priced as long as +3500 which makes them 11th favorites at present.
The return of Valančiūnas may be more valuable to the Raptors in terms of what he can bring to the overall team rather than as an individual. There’s no denying he is something of a one-dimensional player when it comes to creating his own chances at net, but he is one of the leading post defenders in the business.
If truth be known, Valančiūnas would still be wearing a Raptors jersey were it not for the opportunity for head coach Masai Ujiri to sign Marc Gasol. The Boston Celtics may also be interested in Valančiūnas given that they too have the players in their roster like Carsen Edwards who they could trade to bring more depth to their forecourt. Needless to say, Valančiūnas is still an in-demand center in the dizzying world of NBA.