Lithuania has churned out several talented NBA players over the years, but its latest prospect Domantas Sabonis is currently making his mark at the college level for Gonzaga.
The son of European star and former Portland Trail Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis has besieged west coast foes in the paint for the last year-and-a-half. His tenacity as a defender, rebounder and scorer has garnered widespread NBA buzz.
After relentlessly crashing the glass in 2014-15 as a freshman, Sabonis has done more of the same while enjoying an expanded offensive role this season. Through five games, he’s averaging 14.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per game and a blistering 71 percent from the field.
How much of Sabonis’ collegiate success will translate to the Association, and what can potential suitors expect from him as a pro?
Sabonis’ opportunities and production at Gonzaga stem largely from his energy and alertness, and the same will be true in the NBA. At this juncture, he’s not nearly as skilled as his father was.
He sniffs out and pursues rebounding opportunities like a starved wolf looking for its next meal. Although Sabonis isn’t a top-shelf leaper, he’s strong and moves his feet exceptionally well. He’s tallied ridiculous 14.5 rebounds per 40 minutes, 18.8 rebounding percentage and 15.8 offensive rebounding percentage. Sabonis’ NBA rebounding numbers won’t be quite as astronomical due to the league’s length and explosiveness, but he’ll scrounge up plenty of boards.
The big fella’s motor and body control will also serve him well in transition, where he lopes from end-to-end with ease and finishes strong. He’ll do just fine in the NBA’s push-the-ball style because he’s mobile and aggressive.
In the half court, Sabonis projects to have a relatively modest role.
Most of his buckets for Gonzaga come near the hoop on lefty forays to the rim, and he only steps away from the basket for multi-dribble slashes or jumpers sporadically. Fortunately, Sabonis does a superb job converting pick-and-roll opportunities as well as quick post-ups like this one:
Although his perimeter game is far behind his interior prowess, he made huge strides since last season as a jump-shooter and free-throw shooter.
Sabonis is noticeably more fluid and confident on catch-and-shoot jumpers off pick-and-pops and kick-out passes this year. It’s clear that he made progress this summer at the Nike Skills Academy and FIBA U20 games. He started off the season quite efficiently in both departments, hitting 67 percent on two-point jumpers (per Hoop-math.com) and 86 percent from the charity stripe.
He calmly drilled a 15-footer and 18-footer during a 26-point demolition of Northern Arizona:
Sabonis may never reach his dad’s passing plateau, but he dishes the rock to the tune of 2.8 assists per 100 possessions. He does a great job of keeping his head on a swivel, executing the offense and finding teammates when things break down.
Domantas Sabonis just really understands how to use angles and get where he wants all over the floor.
— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) November 25, 2015
Oh man, that big-to-big high-low set that Gonzaga just ran was so beautiful. Sabonis with just a gorgeous touch pass.
— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) November 25, 2015
Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress.com explained that his ability to connect with teammates helps his pro candidacy:
(Sabonis) can pass out of the post or play high-low…(his) passing ability bodes well for his potential as a role player in the NBA.
If his jumper and passing ability continue to develop, Sabonis could get minutes as both a power forward and center in the NBA. He’d be the fourth or fifth scoring option on the floor, but a valuable presence due to his offensive rebounding and distributing skills.
Sabonis has a chance to be a legitimate two-way role player because he can defend at a high level.
He’ll be able to check most power forwards because he’s quick-footed and strong. Most importantly, he has the alertness and willingness to defend on every possession.
Although he’s not an acrobatic shot-blocker, Sabonis protects the paint by beating opponents to the spot and walling off driving lanes. When a shot goes up, his insatiable appetite for rebounds finishes off possessions.
The most attractive aspect of Sabonis’ defense from the NBA’s viewpoint is his footwork and ability to play away from the rim. He can bounce from the weak side to contest shots, blow up pick-and-rolls with swift hedges and contain guards and wings on switches.
Here he held his own against Connecticut’s shifty swingman Daniel Hamilton:
— Jonathan Wasserman (@NBADraftWass) November 27, 2015
Despite his effectiveness for the Bulldogs, there are some defensive concerns for Sabonis moving forward.
Firstly, he needs to clean up his foul rate. Right now he’s still overzealous on some plays, reaching in or hounding opponents when it’s not necessary. Sabonis is committing 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes, and he recently fouled out of Gonzaga’s loss to Texas A&M in just 18 minutes.
While the fouls are fixable, his 6’10.5″ wingspan is not. That might not sound like a short reach, but it is compared to the host of power forwards and centers who have 7’1″ wingspans and 9’3″ standing reaches. The bottom line is that Sabonis will face a size disadvantage against some 4’s and 5’s.
Nevertheless, Sabonis figures to be an efficient, stingy defender whose blend of muscle and foot speed will give his coach schematic flexibility.
It’s safe to say he has the chops to be a two-way contributor who gets 15-20 minutes per night in the rotation. But what about his ceiling?
If Sabonis reaches his full potential on both ends of the floor, his optimistic-yet-realistic outlook is in the neighborhood of 25 minutes, 10-12 points and 8 rebounds per game. He’s not an elite athlete who will enjoy scoring outbursts, but he could be a dependable cog in the right system as a top-tier sixth man.