Rookie Ladder (old archive)

Domantas Sabonis working to make his name stand on its own in NBA

It's early, but OKC's rookie (and son of Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis) is looking solid

Scott Howard-Cooper

The first visit to the Pacific Northwest is about five weeks away, on Dec. 13, a Sabonis back in the NBA and back in Portland, Ore. It is a moment a dozen or so years in the making and bound to create nostalgia as long as everyone closes their eyes.

Domantas Sabonis is not Arvydas Sabonis. Basketball-wise, this isn’t the father’s son. Domantas is the next generation and also the next version. And not just because nobody, nobody in the history of the game, was like the great Arvydas — the man they called “Sabas” — and watched in awe as the greatest passing center of his and maybe any time.

That’s part of it – Arvydas was one of a kind. He was massive, 7-foot-3 and 280 pounds, but had the court vision of a point guard and the ability to play from the 3-point line as a distributor or shooter. He was imposing while in Europe, one of the greats bound for the Hall of Fame, and still impossible to miss later in his career as a Trail Blazer even as his body broke down from too many years of injury. “Sabas” was a factor on Portland’s playoff teams but the NBA got him at the end of the line in his career (he retired for a second time and for good after 2002-03).

Domantas, though, is starting in the NBA, a 20-year-old rookie with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was born in Portland while his father was a Blazer and is well known to North American audiences after two seasons at Gonzaga. Quite a contrast from Arvydas, the curiosity from behind the Iron Curtain as a Lithuanian playing for the Soviet Union. Arvydas would avoid conversation by telling reporters he didn’t speak English, then go talk with English-speaking teammates. Domantas is polite and approachable. Domantas is only 6-foot-11 and 240 pounds, albeit likely with growing ahead.

There is even the difference on the court, the way father was impossible to miss, in size and highlight plays, while the son is more about fitting in, at least at this stage. Domantas does not have a couple skills that pop, but he does a lot of things well and is already an important contributor to the 6-1 Thunder. He’s the starting power forward, making him the franchise’s first rookie to make the opening-night lineup since Kevin Durant in 2007-08. The younger Sabonis does not project to be great, but can be good in many ways.

“Very, very hard worker,” OKC coach Billy Donavan said. “Very bright. A strong, strong desire to want to get better, to want to improve. I’ve always felt this way: The best players, to me, are the ones that are always self-reflective, where they look inward to say, ‘What can I do better? How can I improve?’ And that’s what he does. He takes everything. He watches. He pays attention. He’s going through things for the first time. But I think he’s got a chance to be a terrific player for us because he can handle, he can pass, he can catch, he’s physical, he’s bright, he’s got a great work ethic. He’s got all the intangibles to be a really good player.”

The opening weeks as an immediate starter and one of the best first-year players have been encouraging. The trip to Portland should be fun. But this is his beginning, not a continuation.

To this week’s rankings:

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Last week: 1)

Four 3-pointers in four tries Saturday against the Cavaliers, huh? Four blocks in consecutive games? Early-November, and Embiid is already starting to toy with the field. Turnovers have emerged as an early concern, with at least four in four of the first five games, including six and five the last, respectively, in his last two games (despite playing just 21.4 minutes per game). Part is adjusting to defenses, part is likely rust after missing two seasons and, unlike most of the rest of the class, not having a Summer League. Embiid has such a good feel for the game for someone with relatively little experience that he should get better.

2. Kris Dunn, Minnesota Timberwolves (3)

He has gone from 17.5 minutes off the bench to 25.8 in the four games starting in place of the injured Ricky Rubio and from 2.5 assists to 5.0. Shooting 36.7 percent in all is a bad look, except with the perspective that it puts Dunn in the same range as most other wings in the class projected to have big roles. It is a rookie thing so far, not a Dunn thing. And the commendable assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.27-to-1 helps offset the shooting struggles.

3. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics (2)

Brown at 46.5 percent from the field would be a nice first six games for any rookie, but his start comes with the extra credibility of a solid number while mixing in 3-pointers. He’s also getting big minutes in the fourth quarter – 9.1 – for a good team, another positive statement.

4. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks (not ranked)

From No. 36 pick to immediately making the rotation to top six in the class in points, assists, steals, minutes and free-throw percentage. Shooting has been a problem – 36.7 percent – but, like Dunn, Brogdon counters that by taking care of the ball. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.63-to-1 is an encouraging start.

5. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers (not ranked)

He was seventh in the season-opening ranking, shot his way off the list by last week and returned thanks to a strong run (and the rest of the field giving him an opening): 21 points followed by 14 points and seven rebounds followed by seven rebounds in 18 minutes in a night limited by four fouls. The big man who can pass only has 10 total assists, but if he starts putting up numbers in that department and the rebounds continue, it will be more than enough to counter the current shooting problems.

6. Malcolm Delaney, Atlanta Hawks (not ranked)

The undrafted free agent from Virginia Tech – not lottery pick Taurean Prince – has been the impact rookie in Atlanta. Delaney is getting 17.0 minutes a game as backup point guard for a veteran team in win-now mode, earning the confidence of coaches and teammates by climbing to a tie for 17th in the league, regardless of experience, in assist-to-turnover ratio. The 3.81-1 is easily first in the class. He is also 2nd in assists, 11th in scoring, 8th in three-point shooting and 12th in minutes.

7. Domantas Sabonis, Oklahoma City Thunder (6)

The Thunder continue to show confidence in Sabonis, at first starting him on opening night and now giving him 27, 24 and 30 minuites the last three games. That has come as part of a stretch of seven of 14 3-pointers in four outings, moving him to No. 2 among rookies in total 3-pointers made. While 47.1 percent behind the arc won’t hold up, it is another example of his versatility and why Sabonis can immediately become an ideal complementary player alongside Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo.

8. Wade Baldwin, Memphis Grizzlies (8)

This could turn out to be a very interesting rookie class for the Grizzlies. Baldwin was a good pick at No. 17 for a team that planned to re-sign Mike Conley but would need a backup point guard, and Deyonta Davis was in the conversation for late-lottery before falling all the way to 31. Now Andrew Harrison is also playing a lot and Troy Williams has contributed a good game. Baldwin is 3rd in assists and tied for 4th in steals (with Harrison) among rookies.

9. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors (9)

He is not going to have a featured role in the offense, but making 10 of 18 shots the past three outings is the latest in understated contribution as the starting power forward. He has only topped 20 minutes twice, though, and is vulnerable to fall out of the rankings. More games like the last one, the 10 points and six rebounds Sunday against the Kings, will help.

10. Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns (5)

Not playing well happens. Basically not playing, period, is a problem. Chriss just had consecutive outings of 10 minutes and one minute without foul trouble – or much of anything, come to think of it – before the U-turn by coach Earl Watson on Tuesday in Portland to suddenly make Chriss the starting power forward. He stays on The Ladder, for now, on the strength of holding at No. 4 in the class in shooting (among players who have taken 20 or more shots) and No. 9 in rebounds per game.

Dropped out: Brandon Ingram (4), Buddy Hield (7), Jamal Murray (10).

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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