HOUSTON - The path to greatness is filled with innumerable milestones along the way, moments that serve as meaningful markers representing the next step on the long, hard road to grand accomplishment. Most people would probably recommend savoring those landmarks. They would speak of the importance of taking time to reflect upon the significance of those achievements and of savoring the moment before moving on to the next. Donatas Motiejunas is not one of those people.
That much was made abundantly clear (assuming it had not already been evident, which is a point that is most definitely up for debate) Tuesday afternoon when the 22-year-old Lithuanian largely shrugged at the news that he will be making his first ever NBA start Wednesday when the Rockets play host to the Milwaukee Bucks. Make no mistake: Motiejunas fully appreciates the opportunity coming his way and is chomping at the bit to make the most of it. But bask in the significance of his accomplishment? Nah, that’s not happening.
“It’s just one step,” he said following Tuesday’s practice. “For me it’s just one step toward reaching what I want to accomplish. If I finish my basketball career and I feel that I (did) not give all of myself for this job and I didn’t reach the best, I will be disappointed in myself.”
Motiejunas made no secret of his desire to be great right from the very first moment he put on a Rockets jersey. His ambition lurks everywhere within his heavily accented English, as does his complete and utter lack of fear. “If you’re scared of wolves, don't go into the woods,” he memorably said last summer when asked if he harbored any doubts whatsoever about his ability to contribute at the NBA level. Then again, such statements should hardly rank on the shock-o-meter given the fact they originate from the same person who, one month earlier, had matter-of-factly voiced his desire to be a "perfect player."
Motiejunas is currently a long way from achieving that lofty designation and he knows it. He came to Houston facing a steep learning curve that required him to adjust to the way the NBA game is played and called. His understanding of defensive rotations, close-outs and help-and-recover tactics has had to significantly improve in a hurry. He still needs to get stronger in order to enhance his ability to withstand the pounding bigs deliver down low so that he can hold his ground and become a better rebounder. None of this comes as a surprise, least of all to the man himself. Motiejunas is as frank and brutally honest when discussing those flaws as he is when sharing his thoughts on the grand goals he has set for his playing career. His solution to both subjects is the same as well: just work harder.
“He’s gotten a lot stronger, he’s gotten better, he’s really been diligent and he’s been patient,” said Houston head coach Kevin McHale. “I know he really wanted to play earlier; in fact he’s one of the few guys who ever said, ‘Put me down in the D-League, I need to play more.’ He just keeps working hard and he’s going to get his chance.”
He’s earned it. Motiejunas hasn’t seen many minutes this season, but he’s shown a knack for making the most of whatever playing time he has received. Not surprisingly, his greatest impact has been on the offensive end where his versatile, full-court, inside-out game makes him a difficult matchup for opponents. He can fly up and down the floor, making him a perfect fit with the club’s fast-paced style of play. He can stretch the floor with his shooting from the corners, providing pivotal spacing that’s needed at the four-spot alongside Omer Asik. He rolls hard to the rim off pick-and-rolls, providing options aplenty for Houston’s primary playmakers. And Motiejunas also has the makings of a low-post maestro with his deft footwork and ability to finish with either hand. The sample size is far too small to make sweeping declarations at this point, but in 17 post-up possessions so far this season, D-Mo is shooting better than 58 percent from the field according to Synergy Sports. What’s more, Motiejunas is currently sporting a ridiculous 85.7 percent conversion rate at the rim according to Hoopdata.com. To repeat: those numbers represent the tiniest of sample sizes. But they also back up what the Rockets’ coaching staff has seen in practice: D-Mo is a weapon ready to be unleashed.
His shot chart for the season tells a similar tale:
Of course, those numbers represent his production on only one side of the floor. For Motiejunas to make the starting position his for the long haul he’s going to have to hold his own on the defensive end and on the boards as well. As with any rookie, mistakes will be made and growing pains must be endured. One thing Houston’s coaches will not have to contend with, however, is any sort of crisis of confidence.
“Confidence is not a problem with the Lithuanian,” said Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson. “He thinks he’s pretty good. And we wouldn’t want him any other way.”