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What Pistons thought they had in Motiejunas, they might find again in Sabonis

CHICAGO – All the things the Pistons thought they were getting in Donatas Motiejunas come in a similarly sized – and even similarly labeled – package from Gonzaga, Domantas Sabonis.

Like Motiejunas, Sabonis offers two-position versatility at power forward and center. Like the Lithuanian 7-footer whom the Pistons acquired from Houston at the trade deadline before rescinding the trade over concern for his back condition, Sabonis is a left-handed shooter who can score comfortably around the rim and from outside the paint.

Sabonis grew up in Portland, but his roots – again, like Motiejunas – are in the former Soviet republic of Lithuania. Arvydas Sabonis is a legend of USSR basketball who might have gone down as one of the all-time great NBA big men if he had been able to leave the Soviet Union before 1995, when he was 30 and had suffered a series of debilitating leg injuries that included a torn Achilles tendon.

Domantas Sabonis, at 6-foot-10, doesn’t quite have the size of Motiejunas or his 7-foot-3 father, but he comes to the NBA as a prodigious rebounder, averaging 11.8 in addition to 17.6 points a game for Gonzaga, which finished 28-8 and lost to Syracuse in the Sweet 16. He’s also not yet a finished product at 20, but he improved his stock as a Gonzaga sophomore after a promising freshman season.

“He’s a beast,” teammate Kyle Wiltjer said Thursday at the NBA draft combine. “I mean, he has stuff you can’t teach. Just his mentality. I wish he was here to show you all.”

Yeah, about that. NBA teams wish he were in Chicago, as well. But Sabonis’ agent has held him out of the combine, causing the typical speculation about some anonymous team or two making a promise to draft him. Sabonis is projected to go anywhere from the late lottery to somewhere around where the Pistons are picking at 18. It will be interesting to see if the Pistons can get Sabonis to agree to come to Auburn Hills for an individual workout, an indication his camp wouldn’t be certain about being drafted before their pick.

Wiltjer was Gonzaga’s leading scorer this season, averaging 20.4 points a game. He isn’t a lock to get drafted, but he has one tool NBA teams increasingly covet in 6-foot-10 power forwards: a deadly perimeter shot. Wiltjer shot .437 from the college 3-point line and took almost six a game.

“That’s what I do and that’s what I take pride in,” said Wiltjer, who began his college career at Kentucky in 2011-12 as part of a recruiting class with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist but left for Gonzaga after two seasons. “It’s always good, especially if you have playmakers, to have a guy out there who can shoot. It just stretches the floor for them and if they help off, it’s a shot. Hopefully, that’s my in.”

He knows his younger teammate will have no concerns about hearing his name called on draft night.

“Throughout the whole season, the one consistent thing, no matter if he’s playing bad, he plays his (backside) off. He’s rebounding – he’s an amazing rebounder and that’s always needed at the next level. (His basketball IQ) is very good. He’s a good passer. He’s very unselfish. From freshman to sophomore year, he really expanded his mid-range jumper. That really helped our team out, but it’s also helped him as well.”

Sabonis doesn’t yet have 3-point range, shooting only 14 as a Gonzaga sophomore, making five. But it’s also not something he’s had the opportunity to focus on yet, given his role for the Bulldogs. As teams look at his touch from 15 to 18 feet, they’ll have ample reasons to be optimistic he’ll add range rather quickly as he transitions to an NBA power forward and small-ball center – just the role the Pistons had in mind for Motiejunas.

The current DraftExpress.com mock draft has Sabonis going … 18th, to the Pistons. Given everything Stan Van Gundy said about how he planned to use Motiejunas and everything Kyle Wiltjer had to say about Sabonis, that makes a lot of sense.