Former Toronto Raptor big man Jonas Valanciunas has been a force for the Memphis Grizzlies, especially during their strong playoff push this season. After dropping a massive double-double of 23 points and 23 rebounds against the San Antonio Spurs in their first playoff play-in game, Valanciunas also put up a modest stat line of nine points and 12 rebounds against the Golden State Warriors to help lead the Grizzlies back to the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
Valanciunas has also been solid in the Grizzlies’ first-round series against the Utah Jazz, averaging 14.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3 assists per game while matching up against the two-time defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert.
It’s been a career year for Valanciunas who averaged career highs of 17.1 points and 12.5 rebounds per game this season to go along with shooting 59.2 percent from the field. Valanciunas may have developed and matured his game in his first seven seasons with the Raptors, but his evolution with the Grizzlies has been remarkable. The Lithuanian native has averaged double digits in points and rebounds ever since he arrived in Memphis, which is surprising considering Valancciunas never averaged a double-double in all his seasons in Toronto.
Raptor fans have to be proud watching Valanciunas reach his full potential with the Grizzlies, but it’s also a little bitter-sweet considering the fact that the Raptors only got a couple of seasons out of Marc Gasol, who the Raptors traded Valanciunas for.
One of the biggest areas of concern this past season for Toronto was trying to find some solid production out of the centre position, a role Valanciunas would have filled quite well.
But, there is no doubt that Marc Gasol’s high basketball IQ on both ends of the floor helped propel the Raptors to their NBA Championship in 2019. Valanciunas struggles on the defensive end of the floor, and Gasol was vital for Toronto when they were playing lockdown defence against Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid during their title run.
Would Valanciunas have still taken the leap he has with the Raptors if he was never traded to the Grizzlies? The Raptors often turned to the alternative big man option of Serge Ibaka down the stretch of games, especially when Valanciunas struggled to defend or had an off night offensively. But with the way the Raptors’ roster was this past season, there is no doubt that Valanciunas would have gotten his opportunity to have a break-out season this year with Toronto.
This is one of those “what if” conversations that you could go back and forth on. Trading for Gasol may have given the Raptors that extra bit of veteran leadership they needed to win the championship at that moment, but the sacrifice was losing out on a loyal, young and talented big man in Valanciunas for the long term. A worthy sacrifice nonetheless.