Jonas Valanciunas loved role with Grizzlies after Raptors trade

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After making his Grizzlies debut Feb. 12, Jonas Valanciunas sat at the locker that had belonged to Marc Gasol just a week before and caught his breath.

"I need oxygen," he said after scoring 23 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in a loss to the Spurs.

In 30 games with the Raptors during the season’s first half, he only occasionally had played more than the 21 minutes he logged in his first game with the Grizzlies.

Throw in the fact that he hadn’t played at all in two months because of a thumb injury, and the indication was clear: The Grizzlies planned to rely heavily on the bruising new center they acquired at the trade deadline.

Valanciunas aced the conditioning test. In six of his 19 games with Memphis after the trade deadline, Valanciunas played 30 minutes or more while continuing to stuff the stat sheet.

"I had a great time," he said during last week’s exit interviews. "It was, I don’t know, 20 games. It was good. I had a chance. I had minutes. I had touches. Trust from the coach, who gave me a lot of confidence. I was just worried about basketball and how I can be better. That was great. That was a great two months of basketball."

Of players who appeared in at least 10 games during March, Valanciunas had the NBA’s 16th-highest usage rate while playing 28.8 minutes per game. By contrast, his usage rate ranked 65th in November with Toronto as he played only 19.9 minutes per game.

Even as his minutes increased to their highest level since the 2013-14 season, Valanciunas’ efficiency kept pace. With Memphis, he matched the career-high 24.4 performance efficiency rating he posted in 30 games with the Raptors in a lesser role.

"I don’t like judging myself," he said. "I let you guys do it. I’m saying I had a great time playing basketball. That was really important for me. We’ll build on that."

Valanciunas spoke highly of his two months with the Grizzlies. For fans who want to see the 7-foot Lithuanian bruiser back next season, that bodes well. Valanciunas has a $17.6 million player option for next season, meaning it’s up to him whether he returns to Memphis or hits the free agent market.

He indicated during exit interviews that he would like to continue in his newfound role with the Grizzlies.

"I want to play basketball," Valanciunas said. "And I want to play basketball I would say the same as we showed these two months of the season. It’s just a matter of making a decision, talking with the team, talking with upstairs. I think we’ll make a decision and everything is going to be good."

The Grizzlies fired coach J.B. Bickerstaff a few hours after Valanciunas spoke glowingly of him and the role Bickerstaff established for the soon-to-be 27-year-old center.

A new coach and new basketball leadership within the front office could have other visions of how to use Valanciunas. But newly empowered Vice President of Basketball Operations Zach Kleiman played a key role in orchestrating the deal that brought Valanciunas to Memphis at the trade deadline, and that appears to bode well for Valanciunas’ chances of remaining a key cog in the team’s plans.

Valanciunas suggested that he "needs a point guard" for a quality pick-and-roll game but added that Mike Conley’s future with the franchise "is not going to be super big" in determining whether he wants to stay. Valanciunas is also comfortable with point guard Delon Wright, whom he played with in Toronto.

"For me, I’m looking at the basketball perspective," Valanciunas said. "I’m trying to play basketball and be productive, get a chance to play basketball. I think this is the good chance for me. We’re going to build on that. I’m not looking money, years, whatever.

"I’m looking at basketball."

Reach Grizzlies beat writer David Cobb at david.cobb@commercialappeal.com or on Twitter @DavidWCobb.

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