• Welcome back Hoop Ballers to our International Spotlight weekly feature where we will be taking a look into one of the most improved players of the season, Lithuanian-American center Domantas Sabonis.

    Domantas carries an extremely heavy burden on his shoulders as he is the son of Basketball Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis, one of the most dominant big men to ever play the game. He was born and raised in Portland while his dad was playing for the Blazers and, as expected, he was destined to follow a basketball path. His family sent him to Spain while he was only 16 years old in order to play at the highest level and prepare for a potential career at the NBA level. He became the youngest player to ever debut in the Spanish ACB Liga (17 years, 5 months and 10 days), earning significant playing time and multiple awards while leading the Lithuanian men’s National team to the Silver medal in the FIBA Europe 2015 Championship. Having the financial ability to support himself, Sabonis never signed a professional contract with salary while in Spain in order to remain eligible for the NCAA. After declining an offer of a 3-year $630,000 contract from Unicaja Malaga, he returned home, committing to Gonzaga University prior to the 2014–15 season.

    He had a successful year as a freshman, leading Gonzaga to the Sweet 16 while in his second NCAA season he almost doubled every single statistical number. He was named First-Team All-WCC and declared for the 2016 Draft but he rejected the offer to participate in the NBA Draft combine, opting instead for pre-draft workouts with the Suns, Raptors, Celtics and Jazz. He lacked the elite athleticism generally associated with standout players, yet his ability to impact games with his strength, toughness and basketball IQ made him a sure bet to have a successful NBA career and he proved himself as a clutch, tough-nosed competitor in the NCAA tournament.

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    The Change of Scenery

    Sabonis was never considered a lottery pick, but it’s the heart and intangibles that he brings to the table that make him such a valuable player and the Thunder were lucky to be able to acquire him in the Victor Oladipo – Serge Ibaka trade during draft day. He started 66 games for them as a rookie playing mostly as a power forward and even though his numbers were not remarkable, it was apparent that the talent was there. Billy Donovan showed extreme confidence in him but the team’s structure didn’t allow him to grow as a player since he was merely serving as the supporting cast for Russell Westbrook. He was put in a different place on the floor, serving as the stretch four, quite a change up from his time at Gonzaga where he was a terror in the post. And even though he has the ability to space the floor with increased shooting range, Westbrook dominated the Thunder offense and Sabonis found himself shooting too many contested threes. He released an astonishing 159 triples in his rookie season, making just 51 of them (31 percent).

    The awkward situation the Thunder put him in where he was asked to primarily spread the floor illustrates how important a player’s role can be in their success. And once he got traded to the Pacers this summer the team immediately put the ball in his hands allowing him to showcase his true skills. It’s no coincidence that Sabonis saw the league’s eighth biggest increase in usage rate, the league’s biggest increase in rebounding percentage, and the league’s third biggest increase in true shooting percentage while transforming from an afterthought in the Thunder offense to an integral part of Indiana’s success. But how did the Pacers do it?

    Early Offense, Heavy Mid-Range Game

    The Pacers were written off before the first tip of the season based solely on a talent perspective as they traded away Paul George and brought in 10 new players, including three new starters in Victor Oladipo, Darren Collison, and Bojan Bogdanovic. Their offensive approach seemed to be diametrically opposed to the league’s fast paced theme as they took plenty of midrange shots in contrast to threes. The Pacers led the league taking a whopping 19.3 percent of their shots from 16-24 feet and ranked at the NBA’s bottom in 3-point attempts but that was all by design. “We talk about playing early, playing late,” Nate McMillan said during the year. “If you have an open look or a rim attempt early (in the shot clock), take it. If you don’t, then make teams defend. But when we have open looks, we want to take them.”

    The Pacers proved to everyone that teams can win attempting and making midrange shots which are generally considered less efficient and often the ones that the defense would like opponents to take. In keeping with McMillan’s wishes, the Pacers also ranked third in the league in fast break points scored, only behind the Warriors and the Lakers who have a run and gun up-tempo offense. Look at Lance Stephenson attacking the Bucks’ interior early in the clock allowing Sabonis to make a quick mid-range shot from the top of the key.

    Offensively a Center but Not a Rim-Protector

    Sabonis has a refined low post game and ranks among the best in the game on the glass with an uncanny feel for the game at such a young age (still just 21 years old). The Gonzaga graduate has shown good hands and impeccable footwork on the block and the Pacers made the right decision by playing him to his strengths. He averaged 13.1 points and 10.1 rebounds as a starter this season compared to 5.9 points and 3.6 rebounds with the Thunder last season. In a completely different role, playing as a center with a lot of space, he operated in the offense mostly from the high post instead of just spotting up and scored efficiently by using a combination of strong veteran moves and nice finesse around the basket. Look at him going against a bigger Marc Gasol but being persistent and scoring with the nice hook shot against the Spaniard.

    His shooting numbers this year went up, as expected, (51 instead of 40 percent) and he rebounded more, averaging 7.7 rebounds (2.2 offensive) in just 24.5 minutes per contest. His usage with the Pacers and the Thunder really tells the entire story about his transformation from a spot up shooter to an all around balanced scoring threat.

    cMillan also put the ball in his hands running DHO plays along with traditional PnR action and the results were impressive as Sabonis has an above average basketball IQ and understands how all the cuts and the constant movement forces defenses to make difficult choices. Many of the assists in the Pacers’ offense result from all the cutting, which can lead to open shots even when the cutter isn’t receiving the pass. Look at Sabonis rolling hard to the basket and finding the open man in Darren Collison (who led the league in 3-point percentage).

    Sabonis obviously has some physical limitations that don’t allow him to be a great rim protector. He has a weak lower body, short arms and lacks the length and wingspan to compete, but he uses his good instincts to create deflections and was very good at close outs. Here’s him backpedaling and forcing LeBron to make a bad decision even though he is so close to the basket.

    The Pacers were the league’s best kept secret defensively this year, finishing second in deflections, third in steals and fourth in opponents’ turnover rate due to a combination of quickness, length and a tendency to disrupt the passing lanes. Sabonis specifically was able to challenge opponents by using his excellent positioning and mobility while taking advantage of the verticality rules. Look at some great one-on-one defense against arguably one of the most capable scorers of the game in James Harden on a fast break opportunity.

    A Keeper in Indiana

    It’s clear that Sabonis has found his Ithaca in Indianapolis and a frontcourt of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis might be in play as soon as next season. The Lithuanian big man possesses the playmaking ability to create opportunities for his teammates while Turner can work the block as well as spot up from anywhere on the court. The duo has not been able to spend much time together this season as injuries to each have forced them to miss a handful of games while Thad Young was solid as the starting power forward. Still, I can definitely see them playing together and punishing opponents with the high-low action. Look at how Myles Turner is able to drag John Henson out of the paint due to his ability to shoot with range, leaving Sabonis mismatched against a smaller Khris Middleton.

    His game is still evolving and I would like to see him learn how to use both his hands to finish in traffic since most of the times his moves are easy to anticipate and he struggles against physical defenders. Look at him getting easily blocked by a smaller, albeit quality defender in Quincy Acy.

    Hope you are enjoying the NBA playoffs, thank you for reading this article and please make sure you check us back again next week and throughout the offseason as more player breakdowns are coming up. Stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.

    Stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of April 20th.

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