He was drafted, traded and before he knew it, was hopping on a jet to Rio de Janeiro. In the span of two and a half months, Domantas Sabonis has faced more than the typical rookie summer whirlwind, but as he ducked his head under the doorway at the INTEGRIS Thunder Development Center, he looked calm, comfortable and surefooted.
After competing in the Olympics for Lithuania, the Thunder rookie forward has been in Oklahoma City, working out with fellow big men like Steven Adams, as the staff tries to get him up to speed before training camp begins in a couple of weeks. With no chance to play at Summer League because of his national team commitments, Sabonis has been committed to preparing himself by meeting with Thunder coaches, staying in top condition and getting to know his teammates.
“Everyone has brought me in with open arms. Everyone has been very helpful since the first day of practice,” Sabonis said. “I feel like a part of the team already. It’s awesome to be here.”
If Sabonis’ name looks familiar to NBA fans, there’s good reason. His father is Arvydas Sabonis, a legend in European basketball and an inductee to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. The elder Sabonis was dominant as a member of the Soviet Union’s national team, helping lead the USSR to a victory over the United States and an eventual Gold Medal in the 1988 Olympics. Many contend Sabonis and the USSR’s win in Seoul was the impetus for the United States to field the “Dream Team” four years later in Barcelona.
Arvydas Sabonis played for the Lithuanian national team after the fall of the Soviet Union, played professionally for three different European clubs and won countless awards before coming to the NBA to play for the Portland Trail Blazers, where he earned NBA All-Rookie team honors as a 31-year old and averaged 12.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game while dazzling fans ( WATCH: Arvydas Sabonis Career Retrospective ) with his all-around skill, unprecedented for his 7-foot-4 frame.
“My dad is my idol. I’m very proud of him,” Sabonis said. “Every day he gives me some tips of what I can do.”
WATCH: 1-on-1 With Domantas Sabonis
The connection off the court and on it between Domantas and his father is striking but also important. Arvydas attended Lithuanian practices and games, helping Domantas with his development. Much like his father, who laid it all on the line for Lithuania throughout his playing days, Domantas has been fully committed to representing his country since he was 16 years old.
That dedication was rewarded this summer with an invitation to play in the Olympics, where the 20-year-old Sabonis played in all six games for his country, averaging 18.5 minutes, 5.5 points, 4.5 rebounds 1.2 steals and 0.7 assists per game.
“I was practicing with pros all summer and fighting for my country,” Sabonis explained. “That’s very important to me.”
His August experience was yet another step forward after two strong seasons at Gonzaga University, where he helped lead the Bulldogs to appearances in the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 in back-to-back seasons. During his freshman year, Sabonis performed at a high level by averaging 9.7 points on 66.8 percent shooting to go with 7.1 rebounds per game, but started just one time during the season. His second season in Spokane was when he truly broke out, averaging a double-double of 17.6 points and 11.8 rebounds to go with 1.8 assists per game.
The production, tenacity and basketball IQ Sabonis showed propelled him to the 11th overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic. The Thunder traded for Sabonis on draft night, along with Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova, helping to continue to pipeline of fresh, young talent onto the roster. Now, it’s up to the 6-foot-11, 240-pounder to work on every aspect of his game – including his strengths as a scorer, rebounder, passer and defender.
“I have to improve everything to play with the best athletes in the world,” Sabonis admitted, noting the rookie learning curve.
Being devoted to improving his game will be a great start for Sabonis, who has joined an organization that is known for its player development. The young big man’s skills will grow, his role on the team will take shape and his understanding of the dynamics of the NBA will advance throughout this upcoming season. Most important, however, will be his spirit in the locker room, on the sideline and on the court as he embodies the culture the Thunder has created in Oklahoma City.
“It’s a great organization, everything I believe in,” Sabonis observed. “Teamwork, having your brothers’ back on the court and being a team.”