New Orleans Pelicans: How Jonas Valanciunas will fit with Zion Williamson

Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans shoots over Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the Memphis Grizzlies (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans shoots over Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the Memphis Grizzlies (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

Allow me to introduce the lumberjack who will be the New Orleans Pelicans new man in the middle after the team traded away Aquaman. A double-double machine, Jonas Valanciunas, is an underrated center who ticks off many of the boxes Pels fans want from a big man in today’s game, which will help unlock another level for Zion Williamson.

A lot of analysis around this trade continues to ignore that Zion Williamson is not a center and therefore the Pelicans still needed someone to defend the paint. The recent arrest and upcoming punishment of Jaxson Hayes only further stress the need for a reliable center on the floor every night.

The New Orleans Pelicans don’t lose anything defensively with Jonas Valanciunas

Defensively there isn’t a huge difference between Valanciunas and Steven Adams. Neither are mobile-switch-onto-the-perimeter-and-defend-anyone players like Draymond Green or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Both have gotten by on strength and guile not speed; reading the opponent’s possession and figuring out where to be ahead of time is a skill set that ages well. Put Valanciunas on a more traditional center and he’ll more than hold his own.

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Stats-wise the two are comparable with having averaged one block and grabbed nearly eight rebounds while only drawing a little over two fouls per game over their entire careers. However, Valanciunas has been worth almost two more defensive win shares (22.7 vs 21.0) than Adams.

Valanciunas has averaged two more rebounds on the defensive end than Adams has for their career but a large chunk of Adams’s time was spent playing with Russell Westbrook and the latter’s constant hunt for a triple-double took away from the former’s chances to grab boards.

But I’ll reiterate this because I think it’s the most important part of all these moves the Pels have made at the center position since Zion was drafted. The organization wants someone who will take most of the punishment in the paint (while hopefully dishing out their fair share) so that Zion isn’t the one taking a beating all game. We’ve already seen opponents get away with whaling on Zion’s arms on offense, he should have to put up with elbows and other shots on defense.

That’s why the front office has gone from Derrick Favors to Steven Adams and now Valanciunas. Someone needs to provide the physical presence in the post other than Zion if his ball-dominant role is to continue.

New Orleans Pelicans: Jonas Valanciunas will help Zion Williamson on offense

Offensively is where Valanciunas separates himself from past centers who spent time with Zion. For all the talk of clogged lanes and a lack of spacing, the young superstar sure made getting to the rim look easy.

Valanciunas brings with him a little bit of floor spacing that was not a part of either previous center’s game. During his time in Memphis, the big man averaged one 3-point attempt per game and made them at a 35 percent clip. He’s not Jaren Jackson Jr. from deep but he still poses a threat that opposing defenses must keep in their mind.

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Another part of his game that will be much appreciated by Pels’ fans, offensive rebounding. For a team that shot so poorly from outside the last couple of seasons, having a big who is very good at grabbing boards will ease that pain. This is the front office’s second attempt at adding a plus rebounder next to Zion. That effort paid off last year as the team finished third in rebounds per game.

Valanciunas  has a very soft touch around the basket and more often looks like he’s floating the ball at the rim instead of shot-putting it. His touch is on display as he collects pocket passes from his guards that Adams frequently had a tough time doing.

The Grizzlies gave him many chances to post up and play a very early 2000’s game. With his back to the basket, he routinely got to his spot and took 12 footers that found the back of the net.

These plays won’t become a large part of the New Orleans Pelicans offense but they will allow the Pelicans to throw a look at opposing defenses the New Orleans hasn’t had since Anthony Davis was in town. Giving JV a few plays each game also takes some pressure off of Zion and BI. Last year the Pels offense could grind to a halt at times and one more scoring option couldn’t hurt.

The addition of Valanciunas will help unlock the Pelicans offense by adding another capable shooting threat at the center position, which the Pels need with Zion running the show. JV is a double-double threat every game given his rebounding and soft touch on putbacks. The competition between JV and Zion for most offensive rebounds will be a fun one to watch this year.

Valanciunas could be the man in the middle that takes Zion Williamson to the next level for the New Orleans Pelicans.

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