When Jonas Valanciunas isn’t leveraging his left shoulder in the post, rumbling down the lane, or launching the occasional three, the burly Lithuanian center can most normally be found lurking in the dunker’s spot, mopping up misses and manufacturing angles for dump-off passes. And yet, to refer to that area of the floor as his natural habitat is a bit of a misnomer. While the dunker’s spot is often his home base, it isn’t as if Memphis stashes him there for the sole purpose of maintaining spacing or tapping into his skills as a garbage collector.
In fact, take a look at one of the most common actions that head coach Taylor Jenkins calls for the 29-year-old strongman. Initiated by a cross-screen for a post entry to a smaller forward on the opposite side of the floor, focus on what develops out of the two-man, off-ball split action that occurs above the block. Rather than simply streaking down the lane for a backdoor layup or coming off the screen for three, which the defense could zone up or switch, notice how the post feeder, instead, flows into a pindown for the dunker’s spot, where Valanciunas sets up camp.
For a team that lives in the paint while ranking among the bottom-five in percentage of shots coming outside the three-point line, using a pin to spring open a big around the basket isn’t just all too fitting — it’s effective. Think of it this way: most commonly, bigs set pindowns for guards to curl toward the rim, fade to the corner, or cut straight out for catch-and-shoot jumpers. In this case, however, the big is receiving a screen from a smaller player, which means the defender guarding Valanciunas is being put in an unusual position.
Of course, it also helps that the Grizzlies guards go all out selling the action. For instance, make like Karl Anthony Towns and look at Dillon Brooks in the play below. See how he’s holding up his hands and calling for the ball as he cut throughs on the split-action? In addition to making himself a moving target, that distracts away from the pick he’s about to set on Towns, who isn’t prepared to navigate around the screen or call out a switch.
That said, acting isn’t generally required so long as the screen is angled away from the ball, making it difficult for the big to slide under. In most cases, Valanciunas gains separation. It’s just a matter of whether he converts the shot, which he’s done at a 65 percent clip inside the restricted area and 50 percent or better elsewhere inside the paint — joining only five other players in the NBA this season on at least 200 and 100 attempts from those areas respectively, per NBA.com’s John Schuhmann.
After all, even if the opposing team calls out a switch, what exactly is a guard like J.J. Redick going to do to affect the shot of a 7-foot center in this situation?
With that in mind, consider Game 1 against the Utah Jazz and, more specifically, the opening play-call from Memphis. During the regular season, Valanciunas shot 13-for-30 (43 percent), per the NBA’s matchup data, when defended by Rudy Gobert — a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year. Across those three matchups, part of the problem stemmed from how the Grizzlies were expecting Valanciunas to score on an island against Gobert without any off-ball movement or screening.
In Game 1, Jenkins took what worked with the dunker pindown play referenced above against other opponents, and decided to unveil a dribble hand-off for the dunker spot. To that point, Valanciunas took 743 shots this season and this is the only one of its kind. Granted, according to Synergy, the 29-year-old center received two hand-offs this season, but neither of them originated from this particular spot on the floor.
Rarity aside, though, make note of the initial set-up. With two screeners on the opposite side of the floor, everything about this, right down to ultra-relaxed body language from Valanciunas, screams that a stagger is about to be run for Morant to receive the ball and attack downhill. That’s why Gobert is fixated in that direction, even as he is defending Valanciunas, who (admittedly) is playing opossum and standing completely at ease.
But wait, what looks like a play for Morant is actually just window dressing for Kyle Anderson to dribble straight ahead into a Freaky Friday and delightfully weird hand-off for Jonas, which like the above examples of a dunker pin, causes a brief moment of confusion between Bojan Bogdanovic and Rudy Gobert.
Sure, in the end, Gobert still manages to slide across the lane to meet Valanciunas, but he also *had* to slide across the lane to meet Valanciunas while also busting through a pseudo-pick and treading through unfamiliar territory. Per Synergy, Gobert hasn’t registered any possessions this season defending hand-offs, let alone from a center.
That’s why, for a young, mostly inexperienced Memphis team, there’s something to be said for kicking off the playoffs with brains by calling a quirky play aimed at making their opponent as uncomfortable on one end as their toughness and heart do at the other.
In that regard, with Jonas Valanciunas standing in a specific area without standing still, there’s value in also mixing in possessions where the dunker’s spot, normally used as a passive landing dock, can be weaponized as a launch pad. For a Memphis offense geared around putting pressure on the rim and feasting on the glass, finding creative ways to get Valanciunas the ball in position to score makes the Grizzlies so much tougher to defend.