Anyone who watched Domantas Sabonis during his rookie season with the Oklahoma City Thunder and then for some reason did not watch a single second of the Indiana Pacers last season would be absolutely flabbergasted if they switched on a Pacers game this year and saw the version of Sabonis that now shows up almost every night.
The Sabonis of two years ago was a shell of a player, a 20-year-old rookie starting alongside a force-of-nature version of Russell Westbrook that posted the highest usage rate in NBA history. If Westbrook passed to you that season, he expected you to do something productive with the ball, and if you didn’t, well, he might as well have kept it. And he made that fact known. Sabonis crumbled. He spent much of the season seemingly frightened to shoot outside the immediate area of the basket, and frantically spinning around and looking for a teammate to pass to any time he caught the ball outside the paint, so he never really got to the areas of the floor where he was comfortable shooting it.
As a result, one of the more dynamic big-man scorers in college basketball the prior season posted a usage rate of just 15.4 percent, and his scoring efficiency barely even justified that level of usage. He was eventually pulled from the starting lineup because he couldn’t score well enough to cover up for his other deficiencies, of which there were many. He was an unassuming rebounder who did not attack the glass with any sort of veracity. He was a timid passer who nonetheless struggled with turnovers. He couldn’t defend the rim and he couldn’t hang with perimeter players in space. By the end of the team’s playoff run, he was consistently getting DNP-CD’s.
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And then the Thunder traded him to the Pacers in the Paul George deal, and he’s been a completely different player ever since. Sabonis was one of the most improved players in the NBA last season, but because a) second-year players almost never get attention for improvement because that kind of thing is expected; b) the jump from sub-replacement level player to average player is impressive but perhaps not as impressive as the jump from starter to star; and c) Sabonis’ teammate, Victor Oladipo, made that jump from starter to star, Sabonis’ improvement was not necessarily all that noticeable, or even noticed.
This season, Sabonis looks like one of the front-runners for Most Improved Player, and also possibly for Sixth Man of the Year. He has simply been fantastic. The year over year improvement, when glimpsed all in one place, is remarkable. The following chart is color-coded so that the worst mark of Sabonis’ career is shaded in red and the best in green. Note that it includes per-game, per 36 minutes, and rate statistics and that there is a consistently through-line here.
Some of the numbers in there are pretty absurd. Sabonis, at age 22, is averaging 14.5 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game. This would be just the 37th time in NBA history a player 22 or younger put up those numbers. Extrapolate out per 36 minutes, and he is the only player 22 or younger, EVER, to be this productive. No player his age has ever gone for 21-14-4 per 36 minutes. The only players ever to do it at any age are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elgin Baylor. Like I said: some of the numbers here are pretty absurd.
And they’re borne out on tape. No longer does Sabonis appear timid when he catches the ball, no matter where he is on the floor. He bulldozes his way to the rim pretty much at will, and it’s come to the point where half his shots originate within three feet of the basket. He has become a terrific finisher on those attempts, converting a preposterous 78 percent of the time. And when he doesn’t convert, he usually gets fouled. He’s been parading himself to the line whenever he wants, posting a completely bonkers 0.410 free-throw rate.
His post-ups have also been wildly productive this season — he’s shooting a cool 53.3 percent from the post, per NBA.com. That’s on par with players like Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He works as a fulcrum for Indiana’s second-unit offense, and he just pounds his way through opposing backup big men, who have pretty much no chance of keeping him from getting where he wants to go. He moves into a bit more of a complementary role when he plays with Oladipo, but he doesn’t allow that to keep him from contributing in other ways.
Sabonis now attacks the glass with a ferocity unmatched by almost anybody in the league, for example, and he right now is on track to have just the 40th seasons in NBA history where a player has collected at least 12 percent of available offensive rebounds and at least 30 percent of available defensive rebounds. He is an absolutely elite box-out guy, collecting the rebound himself 44 percent of the time when he boxes out. According to NBA.com’s box-out statistics, only six of the 47 players averaging at least 5 box-outs per game grab the board more often when they box out the opposition. His defensive rebound rate is now nearly double what it was when he was a rookie, and his commitment to boxing out is a huge reason why.
Sabonis’ passing has dramatically improved once again, and his role as a dribble hand-off connector and short-roll dime-dropper is vitally important to Indiana’s offense when he is on the floor. Among rotation big men, he now ranks inside the top 10 in both assists (4.2) and points created via assist (9.5) per 36 minutes, on par with players like Al Horford and Anthony Davis. His chemistry with Oladipo on those actions serves as the basis for a lot of the team’s high-leverage offense, as Nate McMillan appears to trust Sabonis to make the right read on the move or when deciding whether to hand the ball off to Oladipo as he scoots around the floor.
His facility as a screen-setter is incredibly valuable within the context of the Indiana offense, as he works to free Oladipo, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, Aaron Holiday, Tyreke Evans, and Bojan Bogdanovic both on and off the ball. Only 10 NBA players average more screen assists per game than Sabonis, per the hustle stats on NBA.com, and his 8.8 points created per game with his screens are the 10th-most in the entire league.
He’s even made strides defensively, and though his relatively short arms make him a sub-par rim-protector, he has acquitted himself well defending the post and he now knows the right spots to be and when, and why he should be there, far better than he did even last season. Indiana’s defense has been a tick better with him on the floor than off this season, and the same was true last year. He’s still got a propensity to foul due to his less-than-ideal foot-speed and the aforementioned lack of length that would help make up for it, but he’s no longer an incredibly damaging defender, at least.
He’s essentially split the center minutes with Myles Turner this year, though the two are playing around six minutes a night together. Those minutes send the Pacers’ offense into the tank, though it’s notable that they’ve defended admirably during that time and have outscored their opponents. The team is clearly better with just one of them on the floor, however, and even though Turner has long been ticketed for semi-stardom, Sabonis’ play has at least turned the “which Pacers big man is really their future at center” into a much more interesting question than it looked like it’d be when he was first acquired.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Sabonis has closed a few games for the Pacers ahead of Turner when you consider that of the six players with whom each of the bigs has played 250 minutes or more, four of them have a better Net Rating alongside Sabonis, including both Oladipo and Thaddeus Young.
None of this is necessarily indicative of future stardom for Sabonis, but a player who is able to pack this much production into the time that he is on the floor, and one who has shown the ability to improve as much as he has in as short a time as he has done it, is an incredibly valuable piece of a team. Everybody needs size, even in the modern NBA, and if they can get efficient scoring and rebounding and a connector piece for their offense in that large package, that’s all the better. Sabonis is proving he can provide those things in spades, and his doing so is helping the Pacers win. As a franchise, that’s all you can ask for.