25-under-25, Indiana Pacers

25-under-25: Domantas Sabonis at No. 16

Domantas Sabonis is quickly becoming one of the best offensive big men in the game.

Domantas Sabonis has had quite the evolution during his four-year stint in the NBA. In the first year of his career, which was spent with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the former Gonzaga star looked like a bust, as his 39 percent shooting percentage was evidence he wasn’t ready for the vicious world of the NBA low post.

After moving to the Indiana Pacers in the deal that also forced Paul George and Victor Oladipo to swap places, Sabonis become one of the best reserves in the league, routinely bulldozing second-unit centers and helping the Pacers become part of the furniture in the Eastern Conference postseason.

Last year, Sabonis stepped on the accelerator, making his first All-Star team while averaging 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game, all of which are new career highs. He is also one of the best in the league when it comes to production that doesn’t show up in the box score, as only Rudy Gobert was more effective at setting screens last year than him. With an offensive-minded coach in Nate Bjorkgren taking over for the defensive mastermind that is Nate McMillan, expect those numbers to increase this season.

The son of EuroLeague legend, Portland Trail Blazers stud, and Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis, Domantas might not have his dad’s trademark bulk on the interior, but he has made up for it by becoming a lean, rim-running machine with excellent passing and improving defense.

Can Domantas Sabonis continue to become a star while playing alongside Myles Turner?

“In this offense (Turner) can stretch the floor and is really tough to guard,” Bjorkgren said. “You’re going to see him being very active. And that’s for both bigs, whether they are on the floor together at times, or one at a time, they’ll be very active out there.”

The biggest questions that are hanging around Sabonis right now involve his defense and his fit alongside Myles Turner, as figuring out which big man to put on the floor is the definition of a double-edged sword. When Turner leaves and Sabonis is by himself in the post, the team allows 111 points per 100 possessions, far below what McMillan wanted. When the two are on the floor together, two 6-11 bigs sharing the floor often creates a logjam on the interior. No team shot fewer threes than Indiana last year, and Turner’s 34 percent clip from three-point range isn’t good enough to make him a true weapon there.

Sabonis’ effort on the defensive end is not in question, but he isn’t a great shot blocker and often struggles against some of the stronger centers in the East. Another year with McMillan could’ve helped make that leap and become an above-average player on that end, but Bjorkgren will likely spend most of his time trying to get Sabonis to expand his offensive creativity.

It’s not hyperbolic to declare that Sabonis is a younger, less-accomplished version of Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic given how similar their games are right now. The elder Sabonis was heralded for his slick passing ability, which remains uncommonly precise for a player of his size to this day. That trait appears to be genetic, as the younger Sabonis can control the offense from the elbow while finding shooters for open looks after passing out of the post.

If he can develop a better jumper to make himself more of an offensive threat away from the basket, that could be the missing ingredient that takes this offense to the next level. Most of Sabonis’ shots attempts came right at the rim, and he only showed the ability to extend his range out to the free-throw line.

Where Jokic excels is his ability to pull up from deep, making him a constant threat with the ball in his hands. Sabonis might have a feathery touch near the rim, but back-to-the-basket big men are going the way of the dinosaur in the NBA, and he needs to work on his three-point game in order to become a true offensive superstar.

What made Sabonis’ production even more impressive, in addition to his limited range, was the lack of dynamic scorers to take attention away from him and pace on offense, both of which adversely affected his scoring numbers. With Bjorkgren now in Indiana, Sabonis is a mortal lock to get at least 20 points per game next year.

Considering that a playoff team like Indiana not only dumped a very qualified head coach, but also decided to switch up their coaching style by hiring Bjorkgren, there are plenty of questions surrounding Sabonis, Oladipo, and the rest of the Pacers. However, if Bjorkgren is able to work with Sabonis and continue his evolution on both ends of the floor, he’ll be much higher on this list in 2021.

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