Player Review 2018: Domantas Sabonis

Age: 22
Years Pro: 2
Status: Entering the third season of his rookie contract.
Key Stats: Played in 74 games, starting 19. Averaged a team-best 7.7 rebounds along with 11.8 points over 24.5 minutes per game

One year after being nearly an afterthought, Domantas Sabonis can now be regarded as a mystery. A good one, and one likely to bring a happy ending, but a mystery just the same.

Figured by many (prematurely) to be a mere throw-in to the trade that sent Paul George to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo last summer, Sabonis proved himself to be much more than that in his first season with the Pacers. Much more than a career backup, too. Much more than the mere offspring of a legendary player, as well.

And that's where the mystery begins. How long can he go on backing up Myles Turner at center when the advanced analytics indicate he had a better season than Turner? How long do they run the experiment of him and Turner playing together to see if it can work, especially when the analytics of that pairing were not particularly positive this season? And if they don't turn out to have good chemistry together as starters, what happens then?

Those questions should begin to answer themselves next season, but in the meantime the Pacers have two promising 6-foot-11, 22-year-old centers.

The Pacers were impressed with Sabonis two summers ago, when he left Gonzaga after his sophomore season to enter the NBA Draft. Orlando took him with the 11th overall pick before trading him to OKC. Kevin Pritchard, however, says the Pacers had him rated about the sixth-best player in the draft, with scouting director Ryan Carr being a table-pounding supporter of the young center. Their admiration for Sabonis' game helped make OKC's offer for George an easy choice to accept.

Sabonis' father, Arvydas, is regarded as one of the all-time great centers, an agile 7-foot-3 specimen who could score and pass with equal flair. Domantas, his youngest son, is four inches shorter and left-handed, but at least shows some of dad's versatility to go with a blue-collar mentality that endears him to fans and teammates alike.

Still, it's understandable why most OKC fans didn't flinch when Sabonis was traded to the Pacers last summer. He had started the first 64 games his rookie season and turned in several strong outings — such as by hitting four 3-pointers three times within the first 30 games — but he faded as the season grew long and came off the bench the rest of the way. By the time the Thunder met Houston in the playoffs he was nearly forgotten. He played a combined six minutes in the first two games of the series, hitting four foul shots for the sum of his scoring, and didn't play at all the final three games.

He got a fresh start with the Pacers, and made an immediate impression on his new teammates upon joining the scrimmages before training camp. He and Lance Stephenson immediately found harmony as a pick-and-roll combo, causing Stephenson to exclaim to himself, "Oh, man, this guy is good!"

Indeed, Sabonis' work in pick-and-rolls brings out his goodness as well as anything. He sets man-sized picks, catches the ball in traffic, can score with either hand around the basket, and passes out of double-teams to open teammates when necessary.

"You hit the guy, once he gets it, basically it's a bucket," Stephenson said. "He can catch it, he can pass, he can do it all. I definitely underestimated him coming into the season."

It didn't take long for Sabonis to lift everyone else's estimations after the season began. He hit all seven of his field goal attempts in the season-opener against Brooklyn, then started the next eight games because Turner had suffered a concussion. He hit all seven of his shots again in the third game, and then made all nine in the fifth. Through 13 games he was averaging 13.3 points on 63 percent shooting and 9.5 rebounds.

He drifted back to reality as the season progressed and even appeared fatigued at times after the All-Star break. An ankle sprain kept him out of six games in March, perhaps giving him a needed rest, and he played well in six of the final eight regular season games — including a career-high 30-point outing off the bench at Charlotte in the second-to-last game.

Sabonis benefited from joining the Pacers in the same manner Oladipo did: He got more playing time and was given a greater role in the offense. Aside from rebounding, Sabonis led them in field goal percentage (.514) and double-doubles (15). Although he didn't shoot nearly as many 3-pointers as in his rookie season in OKC, he still hit 35 percent of his 37 attempts, as well as 75 percent of his free throws.

His lack of playoff experience showed in the series with Cleveland, but he appeared to grow out of it. He averaged just 5.7 points on 41 percent shooting in the first three games, then averaged 20 points on 74 percent shooting in the next three games before scoring just 10 on 3-of-10 shooting in Game 7 in Cleveland.

All in all, it was both an impressive and educational season for Sabonis, who is as sheepish off the court as he is bullish on it. His stock answer after every good performance was something along the lines of "just trying to do my job." Aggression is not an issue for him. Confidence might be at times, but then you have to remind yourself of the stat that overrides all the others: he's 22.

Experience has been his ultimate weakness, but he offers a promising template for future growth.

"If you went over there and said, 'Eat that wall and we'll win that game,' he'll say 'Can I use salt and pepper?'" Pritchard said at the start of training camp. "He's just that kind of a guy. He's physical, he's tough, he's super-motivated, his motor's high."

"I think he's still figuring out how strong he is, and agile," assistant coach Dan Burke added. "I think it surprises him sometimes how strong he is. He's coachable, a nice kid. He's a joy."

Sabonis is so coachable, so nice, that he says he's willing to come off the bench again next season. The ideal scenario might seem to find a way for him and Turner to play together and therefore address the team's greatest weakness from this season, rebounding, but Thaddeus Young seems to have the power forward position on lockdown if he returns. One could argue for moving Young to small forward, but if he hit 32 percent of his 3-pointers again, as he did this past season, it would only amplify the second-greatest weakness, 3-point scoring.

Something will have to give eventually. But no matter how the riddle of Sabonis is solved, it seems like a positive result for the Pacers. It's not as important when or where he plays as long as he plays substantial minutes.

"He changes the game, man," Oladipo said. "He's screening, he's rolling, he's finding the weakside...he makes the game a lot easier for me and everyone else."

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