There’s no one more dependable on the Pelicans than Jonas Valanciunas. In the same breath, he remains its most expendable player due to salary cap constraints and questions surrounding fit.
The 31-year-old center has played in 153 contests since arriving in New Orleans a few years ago. Herb Jones has appeared in 144 games during the same time frame, with Trey Murphy III sitting narrowly behind him at 141 games played.
In a disturbingly new NBA where player absences are more commonplace than ever, Valanciunas’ availability shouldn’t be overlooked, along with his efficient scoring ability, fantastic rebounding presence and strong dedication to teammates.
A lot of these characteristics have been on display during the 2023 FIBA World Cup play.
Valanciunas is averaging 13.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in a mere 20.6 minutes of action, shooting 62.8 percent from the field and 75.0% from the 3-point line. More importantly, Lithuania has advanced to the quarterfinals after going undefeated in the first two rounds, which included a 110-104 victory over the United States.
Looking through any number of windows, Valanciunas is a solid starting center in the league. He’s also expressed a desire to extend his time in New Orleans on multiple occasions, echoing these sentiments last May to Kestas Rimkus, a Lithuanian sports editor, and now most recently to Yahoo’s Jake Fischer.
“It was a great feeling being the No. 1 seed [in December]. That’s a big accomplishment,” Valanciunas said. “I want to come back to that. And I want to stay longer there. I like the New Orleans group. I’m ready to go and do it.”
That loyalty should be applauded, perhaps rewarded. There isn’t a long list of impactful players who have been effusive in their praise of the franchise. The shallow depth behind Valanciunas should also be considered, with Cody Zeller replacing Jaxson Hayes and Willy Hernangomez.
David Griffin is currently in the Philippines. Valanciunas is eligible to sign a new contract with the Pelicans. A deal could conceivably get done in the near future, but the problem is, the team has been rumored of wanting to go in a different direction at the 5. So an extension could mean the sudden existence of a long-term commitment to the asset rather than the player.
Willie Green craves versatility. Valanciunas lacks the mobility to guard outside of his position and is a liability against anyone in space. Hence, Larry Nance Jr. was often on the court during clutch minutes last season.
With CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram on the perimeter and Zion Williamson still learning how to best make use of his immense talents, the Pelicans should prefer a stronger shot-blocking presence. A greater threat from 3-point range would also increase driving lanes for their All-Star forwards.
Valanciunas hasn’t averaged more than a block a game in three years and prefers to live inside the lane.
“I don’t want to be stretching out. I want to be a down-low player,” Valanciunas said. “My main game is going to be in the paint, always. Set screens, roll hard. Do damage inside on the low post.”
Valanciunas’ fit on the Pelicans is not a seamless one. He can be a net positive, as he was in 2021-22, but with Green’s offense underutilizing the starting center throughout last season, Valanciunas’ effectiveness waned. His weaknesses were magnified because his strengths went ignored.
The easiest solution is to make a personnel change, but additional patience is required. With training camps opening in less than a month and most teams armed and happy with their rosters, there’s an expectation the New Orleans front office must revisit this issue closer to the trade deadline. Who should fans pay attention to in the meantime?
Possible Trade Targets
A few candidates are obvious, given previous rumors. Jarrett Allen and Isaiah Stewart immediately spring to mind and remain enticing options. Monitoring their respective roles should give clues about potential availability.
The Cavaliers discovered Evan Mobley’s readiness at center when Jarrett Allen missed a string of games last March. Then they watched their version of the Twin Towers implode in the playoffs against the Knicks. Rumored interest in Naz Reid during free agency further revealed Cleveland’s cards.
The biggest stumbling block in landing Allen appears to be the Cavaliers’ asking price. With the Pelicans favoring to keep their young core, there’s a stalemate. If Cleveland doesn’t reduce their demands, expect for New Orleans to continue looking elsewhere.
Stewart makes for a smart target. He’s tough, possesses a great work ethic, is viewed as a locker room leader and offers good defensive versatility. There’s hope that his outside jumper, while still a work in progress, will improve enough to provide reasonable floor spacing.
The biggest variable in any deal with the Pistons could be Monty Williams. If Detroit’s new head coach wavers any from playing bigs at the 4 and 5, Stewart would have to compete with Marvin Bagley III, James Wiseman and Jalen Duren for minutes at center.
Due to offseason developments, other names sit on the radar screen. Kristaps Porzingis’ arrival in Boston might spell the end of Robert Williams’ run as the Celtics starting center, with Al Horford’s presence continuing to impact playing time.
The 25-year-old is a real difference-maker when healthy. Williams’ propensity for injury is worrisome; however, gambling on him could pay off handsomely considering how well he checks the rebounding, versatility and shot-blocking boxes. He could prove a fantastic bargain if he can stay on the floor given he’s entering the second year of a 4-year, $48 million contract.
Daniel Gafford, one of the better shot-blockers in the league, is another name to remember. The Washington Wizards lost their two best players in Porzingis and Bradley Beal this summer. A lengthy rebuild appears ahead. With no stars in town, nearly everyone on their roster should be available for the right price in hopes of landing the next franchise player, especially once the schedule passes the halfway point of the season and teams can begin tanking in earnest.
While Gafford may lack the upside of aforementioned names, he could serve as a necessary stop gap. So too could perhaps Isaiah Hartenstein. Or any team that disappoints early and seeks to morph valuable players into future assets.
One player that the Pelicans should keep close tabs on every hour of every day is Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton. Mobile two-way centers in the league are rare and the Nets could be forced to trade theirs.
If the Nets fail to land a legitimate star, say Portland’s Damian Lillard, the roster grades out as mediocre at best. Hoping for Ben Simmons to rekindle previous magic is probably fool’s errand at this point. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson are great pieces, but the Nets went 12-15 and were swept in the first round of the playoffs once Bridges first donned a Brooklyn uniform.
The Pelicans have been primed to move on from Jonas Valanciunas for awhile. Although he recouped a lot of value down the stretch, he remained largely ineffective against the best in the West. The Pelicans need to go through the Lakers, Nuggets and Warriors to be considered championship material. Upgrading the center position could provide the quickest fix.
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