Valanciunas arrived in Toronto -- after the Cavs passed on him in the draft because he planned to play one more year in Europe -- as a fish way out of water. He spoke broken English, so he struggled calling out coverages on defense; the Raptors could not play sophisticated, zone-style schemes with him on the floor, coaches remember.
He had the precise sort of game -- slow, ground-bound, reliant on back-to-the-basket brutality -- that was about to approach extinction. Kyle Lowry was not shy pointing out his mistakes.
"Jonas would sometimes say, 'What can I do to get him to stop yelling at me?'" says Aaron Gray, who played parts of three seasons with the Raptors.
Toronto's guards found it frustrating that Valanciunas, though an eager and aggressive dive man on the pick-and-roll, was not explosive enough to leap for lobs, coaches say.
"We are family, and sometimes family are hard on each other," Valanciunas once told me of those early years. Lowry made sure to balance nitpicking with support.
Young Valanciunas ate poorly -- soda, sauces galore. David Gale, a former Raptors assistant, remembers dining at a Toronto steakhouse with a voracious young Valanciunas, and watching in astonishment as Valanciunas phoned the pizza place a few doors down to order two pizzas he could pick up on the way home -- a second dinner.
"He was like Andre the Giant," Gale says.
Even then, Valanciunas loved work. He devoured film. He asked questions about opponent tendencies. When Tim Duncan bewildered him with counters atop counters in the post, Valanciunas slunk to the bench and declared to Gray, "I don't know how anyone can stop this guy," Gray recalls.
At every practice over the next two weeks, Valanciunas demanded that Gray and Ed Davis, another veteran big man, play one-on-one against him -- with Valanciunas playing only post defense, Gray says.
"Everything we worked on, he embraced 100%," says Bill Bayno, a former Raptors assistant -- now with the Pacers -- who worked closely with Valanciunas in Toronto.
Save for the occasional ultra-slow-motion 3-pointer, Valanciunas never evolved into a modern center. Instead, he became the best version of his true self.
That player has thrived in Memphis this season: 15 points per game (in only 26 minutes!) on a career-best 59% shooting, and the fattest rebounding numbers of his NBA life. Valanciunas ranks 11th in offensive rebounding rate and sixth on defense. Some of that is due to positioning; Taylor Jenkins has planted Valanciunas deep inside the paint. Valanciunas is closer to the basket on average when an opponent shot goes up than any other player in the league, per Second Spectrum tracking data.
Valanciunas compounds that territorial advantage with some of the league's nastiest boxouts.
Valanciunas does not offer much schematic flexibility on defense. He is not going to hound Damian Lillard types above the arc on the pick-and-roll; the Grizzlies depend on their guards staying hip-to-hip with such players around picks.
But Valanciunas has learned to play his style well enough. He's smarter reading angles and moving his feet. He uses his length well around the rim.
He is in much better condition than he was in his early 20s. That process started in the summer of 2014, when Masai Ujiri, Toronto's president of basketball operations, challenged Valanciunas to get into better shape. He spent the summer working out twice a day with Gale in Los Angeles. He ditched junk food.
Gale and Valanciunas remember celebrating a summer well spent at Nobu in Malibu. Sitting outside at sunset, Valanciunas declared he craved edamame. Valanciunas decided to treat himself: He would order a beer with each order of edamame. "I think we had five orders of edamame," Gale says, laughing. He remembers the bill being around $600.
Valanciunas had earned it. He has maintained a healthy diet and work ethic. On the right night, he can keep Memphis' offense afloat in the post. He isn't super efficient against behemoths who can almost match his size. He's still below average as a passer when help comes, though he has improved.
But if you start an undersized center against him, Valanciunas can beast. Switch, and he smushes little guys. He can use his left hand some after working almost one-handed in the early part of his career.
It was easy to forget Valanciunas after Toronto traded him at last season's deadline. The Raptors, with Marc Gasol in Valanciunas' place, won the title. Valanciunas was miscast on a rebuilding team in a tiny market.
He fit in anyway. Big-man pairings featuring Valanciunas with one of Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, or Solomon Hill all proved workable. The Valanciunas/Clarke duo has been a big winner.
Memphis was one of the league's happiest stories before this horrible virus stalled the league. Most of the focus rightfully went to their young stars -- especially the fearless, charismatic Ja Morant. But Valanciunas was part of it. His old coaches and teammates have been watching, and smiling.
"He's like a son to me," Bayno once told me.