"Well worth the wait"
Such a phrase seems appropriate for Jonas Valanciunas, who spent one more year playing professionally in his native Lithuania after the Toronto Raptors selected him fifth overall in the 2011 NBA Draft.
As a Day 1 starter, a 20-year-old Valanciunas recorded a 12-point, 10-rebound double-double in his NBA debut on Oct. 31, 2012, marking the beginning of an All-Rookie campaign that saw him average 8.9 points and 6.0 rebounds per game.
469 games, 136 double-doubles and five postseason appearances later, Valanciunas' time in Toronto came to an end as he was sent to Memphis in a deal centred around him and long-time Grizzlies centre Marc Gasol. From the moment he was drafted in 2011 to his debut in 2012 and the final game in a Raptors uniform in 2018, the big man that fans and players had affectionately come to know as "JV" had made a lasting impact on the Raptors just as the franchise - and the city of Toronto - had made an impact on him.
Look no further than his return to support his former teammates during the 2019 postseason.
Jonas Valanciunas in the house for the Raptors' Game 1 and he gets a standing ovation 👏 pic.twitter.com/ngPUKXNcks- TSN (@TSN_Sports) April 13, 2019
Monday, Mar. 30. 2020 marked the date that JV would take the Scotiabank Arena floor for the first time as a member of the Grizzlies, giving Raptors faithful their first true opportunity to show their appreciation for all he did over six years.
Grizz fans have come to appreciate Valanciunas, too, and who could blame them? Just like in Toronto, the big man wasted no time making an impact in his first game with Memphis, which was only a sign of things to come.
When JV made his Grizzlies debut on Feb. 12 2019, it had been exactly two months since he had last appeared in an NBA game but a look at the stat sheet would suggest otherwise. In 21 minutes of action, Valanciunas finished with 23 points (on 9-for-11 shooting) and 10 rebounds.
His return to action was, well… "well worth the wait."
He would go on to record 10 more double-doubles in 18 games before his season ended early due to an ankle injury; and they weren't just regular double-doubles, either. Among them were:
- 20 PTS (8-9 FG), 10 REB vs. Dallas
- 33 PTS (10-19 FG), 15 REB vs. Houston
- 23 PTS (10-19 FG), 24 REB vs. Orlando
- 27 PTS (12-25 FG), 13 REB vs. Golden State
- 34 PTS (16-28 FG), 20 REB vs. Phoenix
Not a bad way to finish off a contract season.
The Grizzlies thought so too, inking Valanciunas to a three-year, $45 million contract at the onset of free agency in 2019, committing to the 27-year-old as a part of the franchise's future alongside the young talent of Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant.
As a result of its savvy moves, Memphis has quickly accelerated its rebuild and, in turn, been one of the league's most pleasant surprises in the 2019-20 season. After being projected to finish toward the bottom of the Western Conference in the preseason, the Grizzlies are now 32-32 and hold the final playoff spot in the West with under 20 games remaining.
While the youthful core of Brooks, Clarke, Jackson and Morant receives many of the headlines - and understandably so - Valanciunas has been an underrated part of the team's success.
Through 62 games this season, JV is averaging 14.9 points and 11.2 rebounds in just over 26 minutes per game, all while shooting 58.6% from the field. He's recorded 33 double-doubles and while the league is constantly evolving, he continues to hold serve as a more traditional big man and one of the most efficient post scorers in the NBA.
After a rough stretch towards the end of February, the Grizzlies won four of their last six games ahead of the pause in play to keep the pace as the West's eighth seed. In many ways, Valanciunas has been right at the forefront, averaging 19.0 points and 15.7 rebounds while shooting 74.2% from the field over this same span.
JV's monster stat lines included recording a 22-point, 19-rebound double-double in a February 29 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, a 27-point, 17-rebound double-double in a March 7 win over the Atlanta Hawks and most recently, a 27-point, 16-rebound double-double against the Orlando Magic on March 10.
When discussing whether or not the Grizzlies are ready to take the required steps to hold on to their spot in the playoffs, youth and inexperience is often cited as the reason that they ultimately will relinquish the eighth seed. We often overlook the importance of having an anchor like Valanciunas, who has made five playoff appearances in seven seasons, and he doesn't just know what it takes to get there, he knows how to win big.
JV brought elements of Toronto's winning culture with him to Memphis and it shows. Grizzlies fans have come to appreciate all he does, just as Raptors fans came to appreciate all he did for them over five and a half seasons.
With some uncertainty looming surrounding the remainder of the season, we don't know when the Scotiabank Arena faithful will get a chance to express this appreciation for JV. One thing's for sure, though - whenever that time does come, the amount of love shown will be well worth the wait.
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