Player Review 2021: Domantas Sabonis

Age: 25
Years Pro: 5
Status: Signed through the 2023-24 season.
Key Stats: Started 62 games and averaged a career-high 20.3 points on 53.5 percent shooting. Ranked fourth in the NBA in rebounding, pulling down 12 per game, and led the Pacers in assists (6.7 per contest). Had a team-leading 48 double-doubles and a franchise-record nine triple-doubles.

Domantas Sabonis cemented his status as one of the NBA's most talented big men during the 2020-21 season. The son of Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis, the younger Sabonis is putting together an impressive resume of his own just five seasons into his professional career.

The 6-11 Lithuanian has been a full-time starter for just the past two seasons and has been named an All-Star both years. He earned his second straight selection in 2021 thanks in large part to a strong start to the 2020-21 season.

Fresh off setting a franchise record with 50 double-doubles last season, Sabonis recorded double-digit points and rebounds in 16 straight contests to open the 2020-21 campaign, the longest streak in team history. He scored what was then a career-high 32 points in a season-opening win over the Knicks on Dec. 23 and followed that up with his first triple-double of the season (22 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists) in a victory at Chicago.

Sabonis continued to put up big numbers while also logging heavy minutes. He started each of Indiana's first 47 games, logging over 30 minutes in all but three of those contests. At times it felt like Sabonis was setting a new career mark nearly every other night.

He matched his career high with 22 rebounds against Phoenix on Jan. 9 while also tallying 28 points for the first 20-20 game of his career. He matched and then surpassed his career high for points on back-to-back nights, scoring 32 in a win over Memphis on Feb. 2 and then 33 the next night in Milwaukee. He bested that on Feb. 17 in an overtime win in Minnesota, when he collected 36 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists for his seventh career triple-double, setting a new franchise record.

Between Sabonis' screening and playmaking ability, the big man was heavily involved in almost every Pacers possession. But he also worked hard on the defensive end. Because he played most of his minutes alongside fellow center Myles Turner, Sabonis was tasked with guarding out on the perimeter while Turner protected the rim. Former coach Nate Bjorkgren's defensive schemes had Sabonis on the move so much that he traveled an average distance of 2.7 miles every game, the most of any big man in the entire NBA.

Domantas Sabonis

Photo Credit: Matt Kryger

Sabonis' heavy workload eventually caused him to hit a bit of a wall midseason. His scoring dipped from 22.8 points per game in February to 17.5 in March. He failed to score in double figures in consecutive games on March 31 and April 2 before missing his first three games of the season with a sprained left ankle. He returned for six contests only to tweak his lower back, forcing him to miss six more games.

But that time off allowed Sabonis to come back refreshed, and he played arguably his best basketball at the end of the season. He averaged 23 points, 14.1 rebounds, and 9.6 assists in nine games in May, topping 30 points three times and recording three triple-doubles over that span.

Sabonis followed that up with a pair of strong performances in the Play-In Tournament. He had 14 points, 21 rebounds, and nine assists in the win over Charlotte on May 18 and then had 19 points, 11 boards, and 10 assists in the season-ending loss in Washington on May 20.

On the season, Sabonis increased both his scoring (up from 18.5 points per game last season to 20.3) and assists (from 5.0 to 6.7). He also ranked fourth in the NBA in rebounding at 12.0 per game.

Sabonis came up just shy of his own franchise record for double-doubles, collecting 48, but his nine triple-doubles (not counting the one in the Play-In Tournament) shattered the previous franchise record of five, a mark set by Lance Stephenson in 2013-14. Sabonis displayed such adeptness as a passer that he actually led the Pacers in assists per game, a rare feat for a big man.

He credited his success to the work he put in over the offseason. Knowing teams would double him more coming off an All-Star season, Sabonis put an added emphasis on making the right read on when to try to score himself and when to look to set up his teammates.

"This year I feel like I was a complete different player than I was last year," he told the media during his exit interview.

While the bread and butter of Sabonis' scoring is on the block, he also increased his 3-point attempts significantly last season. After attempting 67 shots from beyond the arc in 2019-20, Sabonis hoisted 167 shots from long distance this season. He also hit them at a higher rate, raising his 3-point percentage from .254 to .321, still not an elite percentage, but enough of an improvement that defenses have to show at least some respect for Sabonis as a shooter.

It figures to be another busy offseason for Sabonis, who will suit up for his national team at the end of this month as Lithuania hosts a six-team qualifying tournament for the Tokyo Olympics. Should Lithuania qualify, Sabonis would head to his second Olympics (he also took part in the Rio de Janeiro games in 2016 the summer before his rookie season).

After his international commitments are fulfilled, Sabonis will turn his focus to the 2021-22 campaign. The hope is for the Pacers to enter training camp fully healthy, allowing players like Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, and T.J. Warren to fill out what can be a potent starting lineup.

"We definitely have a lot of firepower, a lot of guys (that can score). But with that, we're going to have to sacrifice. We're going to have to sacrifice and look at the bigger picture and get as far as we can in the playoffs."