Domantas Sabonis Made Big Impact, Has Bigger Goals

With a rare combination of skills that make him a nightly triple-double threat, No. 10 provided an instant boon to Sacramento’s offense.
by Alex Kramers

Home tip-off was in a new place at a new time, and he had only a few hours to cram basic sets from a new playbook, but in his Kings debut, Domantas Sabonis picked up right where he left off as a two-time All-Star with the Pacers.

He set immovable, trucking screens to free up teammates on the perimeter; he initiated dribble hand-offs; he tossed precise bounce passes to backdoor cutters when he commanded double-teams; he muscled his way around the basket with a flurry of post spins and jump hooks; and he rolled to the rim when he found cracks within the defense.

Sabonis finished that night with 22 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and a steal in 32 minutes in a win over the streaking Timberwolves, displaying all the skills that make him a triple-double threat each time he steps on the floor. He’d go on to grab double-digit boards in 11 of his next 14 appearances in a Kings uniform and dish six or more assists nine times.

 
 

The 6-foot-11 center’s averages with his new team were strikingly similar to his prior two seasons with his old one: 18.9 points, 12.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists. The only other players who’ve matched that statline since 2019-20 are the last two MVP winners, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Despite only a handful of practices with his Kings teammates, Sabonis seemed to know exactly where they’d be on the floor and how to find them in scoring position, often slinging passes before the defense could rotate. His 27.1 assist rate ranked in the 98th percentile among NBA bigs, according to Cleaning the Glass. Only Jokic made more passes (57.6 per game) and registered more potential assists (10.9) than Sabonis since he came to Sacramento, per NBA.com.

No. 10’s ability to stay set on screens and relentlessly, creatively re-screen was just as paramount for an offense that ran the fifth-most pick-and-roll possessions in the league. Sabonis led all players in screen assists (5.8 per game) since the midseason trade and finished behind only Utah’s Rudy Gobert in points created with those picks (13.7).

That was music to the ears of De’Aaron Fox, one of the game’s best at getting to the rim and popping from mid-range, as well as Harrison Barnes and Sacramento’s other outside shooters, who had more time and space to knock down threes.

Because of how he positions his body, quickly pivots and roams to the basket, Sabonis has evolved into one of the most productive bigs in the league as the finisher in pick-and-rolls. He scored 1.33 points per possession as the roller with the Pacers in 2021-22, a mark that placed in the 83rd percentile, per Synergy Sports. The early returns on his pairing with Fox, an excellent orchestrator out of the pick-and-roll, were positive, as Sabonis scored at a similar clip in those sets (1.24 PPP; 71st percentile) and was also exceptional in transition (1.39 PPP; 91st) since the trade.

An elite finisher at the cup, with tremendous strength, creativity and footwork, Sabonis converted on 68 percent of his shots at the rim in purple and black. The Gonzaga product was a near-automatic bucket from short mid-range, too, drilling 53 percent from within four to 14 feet (88th percentile, per CTG).

As proficient as he was in the paint, Sabonis wasn't as effective behind the arc. Threes accounted for only 16 percent of his offense last season, and in 15 games with the Kings, he attempted only 17 triples and made four of them. Sabonis did connect on a promising 32 percent on roughly 2.5 tries from long distance over his last year-plus in Indiana, and an uptick in volume could further elevate his scoring efficiency and space the floor for the entire offense.

Even without the threat of the long ball, when Sabonis fired or facilitated, Sacramento was more than likely putting points on the board, one way or another. On all of his usage possessions, the Kings tallied 1.35 PPP, which ranked in the 84th percentile according to Second Spectrum.

 
 

In his 504 minutes on the floor, the Kings scored 3.9 more points per 100 possessions, a swing that ranked in the 81st percentile, and shot better from just about every area on the floor (plus-two overall; 82nd). The offense was even more potent in the 360 minutes when Fox and Sabonis played together, pouring in 115.2 points per 100; only the Suns and Hawks had higher ratings this season.

Although he isn’t a natural rim protector, the 25-year-old possesses the size and court awareness to be an impactful defender. He was exceptional on the glass, grabbing a ridiculous 28.6 percent of available rebounds (96th percentile).

That helped Sacramento maintain a slim defensive edge when he was in the lineup, as the team allowed 0.7 fewer points per 100 with its new big man. It’s noteworthy that the Kings posted a minus-1.9 net rating in the Sabonis-Fox minutes, but the offseason and a full training camp will offer ample opportunity to acclimate to each other’s games and build more chemistry on both ends.

With a foundation built around its two young stars – a lightning-quick guard who gets to the rim with ease and a physical screen-setter who excels as an offensive hub in the post – plus incumbent role players and incoming free agents who fit the offensive identity, there are plenty of new, intriguing possibilities in Sacramento.

“We didn't have much time to practice and get together and know all the sets, defensive schemes and everything,” Sabonis said. “That’s why I’m excited for the summer. We’re going to get together as a group and try to build on things early before training camp even starts. I think that’s going to help us a lot. The more we play with one another, the more we get a feel for each other … The more we kind of work together, it’s going to be better. We have big goals for next season.”

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