Sabonis Hoping to Show Growth as a Shooter

Over the past two years, Domantas Sabonis has emerged as the focal point of the Pacers' offense and one of the best big men across the NBA.

Since becoming a full-time starter prior to the start of the 2019-20 season, the 6-11 Lithuanian has showcased his all-around game, averaging 19.4 points, 12.2 rebounds, and 5.8 assists over 124 regular-season contests. He has registered 98 double-doubles and a franchise-record 13 triple-doubles over that span while earning back-to-back All-Star selections.

Sabonis has a seemingly complete offensive game between his scoring prowess in the paint, his bruising screens, his tenacity on the boards, and his impressive touch as a passer (despite playing center on offense, Sabonis actually led Indiana in assists last season, dishing out 6.7 per game).

But new head coach Rick Carlisle still sees an area where Sabonis can continue to develop offensively.

"The next logical thing is to work at gradually improving the 3-point shot," Carlisle said. "If you can mix a consistent outside game with the kind of inside game he has, it makes him even more unguardable."

While Sabonis has a good touch on his shot for a player of his size, it has yet to translate to significant success as a 3-point shooter.

While playing for Nate McMillan two seasons ago, shooting threes was more of an afterthought for Sabonis. He attempted just over one per game and converted only 17 of 67 shots (25.4 percent).

Nate Bjorkgren put an added emphasis on 3-point attempts last season and Sabonis increased his attempts to 2.6 per game. He made 52 of 162 threes on the season, a .321 percentage that matched his career average through his first five NBA seasons.

That percentage is enough to keep defenses honest, but Carlisle would like to see it go up again this season. He's not asking Sabonis to become Reggie Miller, but he does expect his big men to be comfortable spotting up on the perimeter.

Speaking with the media following Thursday's practice, Sabonis said Carlisle has installed a lot more "five out" sets offensively than the Pacers have used in previous seasons. "Five out" means that all five players start a possession outside the 3-point arc. That emphasis isn't particularly surprising, as it's a tactic Carlisle deployed with great success in Dallas.

In 2019-20, the Mavericks led the NBA in offensive rating, scoring 115.9 points per offensive possession, and shot the second-most threes of any team (41.3 per game). McMillan's Pacers, on the other hand, were 19th in offensive rating (109.5) and last in 3-point attempts (28.0).

Last season, Dallas ranked eighth in offensive rating (114.6) and sixth in 3-point attempts (38.1). Bjorkgren's Indiana squad was 14th in offensive rating (111.9) and 18th in 3-point attempts (34.0).

When utilizing five out sets, it's particularly important that every player on the floor be a threat from the perimeter. Sabonis said that Carlisle has told both him and fellow big man Myles Turner that he wants to see them both improve their 3-point percentage (Turner is a career 35.2 percent 3-point shooter, though his percentage has been under that mark the past two seasons).

"We're all going to have to get used to playing that way," Sabonis said. "So far in training camp, it's going good."

Sabonis said his outside shot has been an emphasis every summer, but he increased his focus on it this offseason after speaking with Carlisle shortly after he was hired. He has worked closely with assistant coach Jenny Boucek on his mechanics.

Sabonis rang the bell during shooting drills at Wednesday's practice, meaning he made 20 of 25 shots from beyond the arc.

"Our big guys all need to continue to evolve their 3-point shooting, get better at it," Carlisle said. "It's such an important part of today's game...It's a process thing. We've just got to develop our guys so they understand where their shots are coming from and how to step into them.

"Our 3-point shooting as a team is going to get better and better as the season goes on."

It's just three days into training camp, far too early to evaluate Carlisle's offensive system, but reserve guard T.J. McConnell offered a promising preview following Thursday's practice, giving unprompted praise to play of the starting five, which features both Sabonis and Turner.

"The first group today was the best I've seen," McConnell said. "They were practically unstoppable."

Carlisle is Sabonis' fourth head coach in six NBA seasons (he played for Billy Donovan in Oklahoma City as a rookie) and the two share a unique connection. Carlisle was an assistant in Portland from 1994-97 and coached Sabonis' father, the Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis for two seasons.

Domantas was born during that time in May of 1996, and during his introductory press conference this summer Carlisle told an amusing anecdote about visiting the Sabonis home shortly after the birth.

Arvydas was actually the person who informed his son that he would be playing for Carlisle, as he saw the news first and sent Domantas a text.

"It's pretty crazy how time flies and that he's still coaching and that this even happened," Sabonis said. "I'm just excited. He's a great coach and we're all excited to be here.

"His presence is felt by us. We respect him on the court. Refs are going to respect him...the league respects him."