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Wednesday February 22, 2012 12:16 PM

Film Session: Donatas Motiejunas

Breaking down the skill set and potential of multitalented 7-footer Motiejunas

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com




HOUSTON - Out of sight out of mind?

For the Rockets and Donatas Motiejunas, it’s much more a case of absence making the heart grow fonder.

The 21-year old 7-footer from Lithuania is plying his craft overseas this year, suiting up for Poland’s Asseco Prokom. He began the season with a bang, setting a Euroleague record by collecting 18 defensive rebounds in a single game back in December and since that time has continued to showcase the impressive skill set that prompted Houston to move up in the 2011 draft to acquire him with the 20th overall selection.

So what does the future hold for the man affectionately known by the articulately-challenged as ‘D-Mo’? Much like fellow rookie Marcus Morris, Motiejunas possesses a size-skill combo rife with potential, owning the sort of physical gifts and talent that could one day present an assortment of matchup nightmares for opponents.

“He’s a guy that’s very versatile,” says Rockets Vice President of Player Personnel Gersson Rosas. “And fortunately for us, we have a coach in Kevin McHale who’s very open to different lineups and very open to mismatches. I could see a lot of different lineups where Motiejunas plays at the five, outrunning bigger but slower centers up and down the floor. Uniquely, that’s the way we want to play: we want to play in an up-tempo fashion and to have a five who can run like that is very intriguing.

“But you could also have the advantage of going big and playing him at the four because he can play inside and out. You can play him with a lot of different combinations; his versatility just opens up so many interesting matchup and lineup options.”

It’s one thing, however, to hear about a player’s potential; quite another to bear witness to it. So Rockets.com sat down with Rosas for a film session to see the multitalented Motiejunas in action and to gain a better appreciation for the gifts that have his admirers in Houston excitedly watching from afar.

This first set of clips highlights Motiejunas’ post-up skills – the unquestioned strength of his offensive game right now. He’s very polished down low, doing well to establish position and seal off his man before receiving the ball and going to work with a wide-range of running hooks, dribble drives and spin moves that leave overmatched defenders in the dust. Best of all, pay close attention to the second clip in this sequence in which the lefty makes his opponent pay for overplaying him to his strong side, spinning and adroitly finishing with a right-handed jump hook that banks off the glass and in.

According to Synergy Sports, Motiejunas is lethal when shooting out of post-ups, hitting nearly 60 percent of his shots while averaging a robust 1.196 points per possession – numbers that place him among the European elite in terms of low-post production. And it’s no coincidence that all three clips showcase D-Mo operating from the right block; the vast majority of his post possessions begin there and – not surprisingly given his aforementioned ambidextrous finishing skills – he’s proven adept at scoring over either shoulder.

“He’s very unique in that he’s a left-handed post player with good size and good feet,” says Rosas. “The impressiveness about his game at this stage is his ability to play with his right hand as well, so he can finish with both hands pretty easily in the post. He’s a tough cover down there.”

“He’s polished in terms of the skill. He’s a work in progress in terms of his body and strength – that’s the biggest challenge coming from the international game to the NBA game. You’re going to face players that are just as big as you, just as athletic and stronger. That’s going to be the transition point for him: the ability to maintain his technique and skill as he gets stronger and more experienced. But compared to other young players at his age and this stage, his offensive game, especially from the post, is much further along.”

Motiejunas’ face-up game is still a work in progress but this clip illustrates his ability to do damage off the dribble from the perimeter. After squaring up against his slow-footed big man counterpart, Motiejunas merely needs two dribbles to blow past his defender, using his long strides and limbs to produce a relatively easy finish.

Expanding, nurturing and cultivating this area of his game will be key in terms of D-Mo’s long-term development. Since NBA teams gear their defenses around trying to take away that which a player likes to do best, the more counters Motiejunas can conjure and the more well-rounded his game becomes, the more difficult it will be for opponents to lock-in and shut him down.

“As always with young players, you want to put them in positions where they can be successful and you do that by having them play to their strengths and his post game is definitely his strength right now,” says Rosas. “I think in time, defenses will gameplan for him as he becomes a bigger player on our team, and because of that his ability and versatility to change his game up is going to determine how big a weapon he can be. He’ll be a guy who teams will try to stop him in the post and so he’ll then go face-up, and from the face-up he can extend it a little bit.

“A lot of bigs in our league have trouble with players who can go inside and out; most bigs want to be in the paint and in the post, and when you pull them outside and you’ve got a guy like Donatas who can put the ball on the floor and get to the basket, it makes for a tough matchup for them defensively.”

 

There’s nothing terribly fancy about these two plays – one a spot-up corner trey and the other a drained pick-and-pop 3-pointer derived from a high screen – but within the end result of such simplicity lies the seed of a skill with the potential to be truly devastating.

As with his face-up game, Motiejunas still has work to do in terms of refining and perfecting his stroke from downtown – he’s shooting just a shade better than 30 percent from beyond the shorter international 3-point line this season – but the mechanics and smooth, easy delivery – they’re all there.

Even if D-Mo never does become a consistent, knockdown 3-point shooter, his potential as a prospect is still significant thanks to his size, athleticism and skill in the low-post. But let’s be clear: adding that perimeter option to his arsenal would be a game changer, providing the Rockets with a dual-threat player capable of spacing the floor and opening up the sort of wide-ranging offensive options that send opposing coaches scurrying to the nearest store to buy Tylenol in bulk.

“He does have an ability to shoot from beyond the 3-point line and has shown good feel and ability,” Rosas says. “As a young player, we’re looking for more consistency and range, and we know when he comes over there’s going to be a transition to the NBA 3-point line but we feel, in time, he’ll be able to play inside and out, and as a 7-footer with an ability to play like that – it’s pretty intriguing.

“As we see there, the key with him is his mechanics are sound; he’s got a good release point, he just needs consistency. I think the more he focuses on that and the more repetition he gets, he’ll be a very consistent shooter from three for us.”

Having taken a peek at his skill set, now get a glimpse of the athleticism Motiejunas brings to the table. D-Mo excels in transition and it’s not difficult to see why while watching the way he blows by everyone on his way down the floor to finish with a powerful flush right in the face of an opponent.

“That was one of the strongest things that caught our eye last year when we evaluated him,” says Rosas. “We really liked his body, his mobility, his speed and athleticism.

“It’s very rare to find a 7-footer who can run the floor as we just saw there and can finish above the rim the way he finished – and not just in Europe, but in the U.S. as well. For him to do that, at his age, you really feel good about his upside and what you’ve got to work with. You pair that up with his post game and with his ability and approach in terms of his work ethic, and you’ve got a lot to work with there.”

The Future

So when can Rockets fans expect to see Motiejunas in person? There’s a very strong possibility he’ll be in training camp with the team this fall. In the interim, however, he still has plenty of work to do to ready himself for a transition that represents a stiff challenge for even the best of international players.

He’s already shown significant growth as a rebounder – a major point of emphasis the Rockets hammered home to him following the draft. One year after averaging just 6.8 rebounds per 40 minutes for Treviso of the Italian League, Motiejunas has seen that number climb into double digits this season; a much better showing from someone possessing his size and athleticism.

Continued improvement in that area is sure to be stressed, in addition to emphasizing increased aptitude on defense (he’s averaging less than one block per game this year) and in the art of drawing fouls – and converting at the line once he gets there (he’s hitting just 67 percent of his free throws this season, a number too low for someone of his skill level).

Overall, however, the Rockets have been thrilled with his hard work, progression and improvement, and are looking forward to bringing him to Houston where Kevin McHale and the rest of the club’s coaches can work with him daily in an effort to unlock and unleash the full power of his potential.

“We’re excited,” Rosas says. “We’ll see how this summer goes. He’s done what he needed to do this year. He’s addressed some of his challenges – his defense and his rebounding – and he ended up the first half of the Euroleague season as the leading rebounder in Euroleague which is a great accomplishment.

“When we’ve had the opportunity to talk with him, that’s been our focus: if you want to come over and be a Rocket, you’ve got to improve your game in terms of defense, rebounding and your body. And at his young age, we love his approach, we love his work ethic and we love that he’s a guy who’s passionate about the game and he’s doing the things he needs to do to be a Houston Rocket next year.

“He’s got a buyout that is favorable for us in terms of bringing him to the NBA. They were very open-minded when they structured his contract because they wanted him in the NBA and I think both sides are on the same page in terms of wanting to get him here when he’s ready and I every day now it seems like he’s more ready to go.”

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