Domantas Sabonis was an All-Star last season. Now he is a supernova. He opened the season with a 32-13-5 stat line, had a 22-point triple-double in his next game and a game-winner the night after that. Sabonis has not slowed down since being named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, leading the Indiana Pacers to a 6-3 start with coach Nate Bjorkgren at the helm. On Saturday, he had 28 points and 22 rebounds against the Phoenix Suns, the first 20-20 game of his career.
Sabonis is not the only reason why the Indiana Pacers have the sixth-best offense in the NBA, but he is their driving force. In the post, he is the same hit-first, hit-second power player he always was, with the same soft-touch and passing ability that made him an ideal fulcrum for Nate McMillan's offense for three years. The new Nate has put him in a position to be even more dangerous on the block, while allowing him to broaden his horizons. Sabonis has long been one of the best dribble-handoff guys in the league, but until this year he was always the guy handing it off. This is different:
Sabonis is driving to the basket almost twice as often as he did last season, and he is shooting 66.7 percent on those drives, per NBA.com. At the rim, he is shooting a scorching (and wildly unsustainable) 73 percent, per Cleaning The Glass.
When Sabonis posts up, Bjorkgren's emphasis on spacing means that Sabonis has more room to operate. He is taking full advantage of this, averaging 8.8 post-ups a game, which ranks fifth in the league. In the modern NBA, most bigs only post up when they have a matchup advantage. Sabonis goes right at defenders his size or bigger. On New Year's Eve, Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond resorted to flopping and earned a technical foul for complaining when he didn't get the call.
Indiana has slightly increased its pace this season, but that statistic fails to capture the way its approach has changed. The Pacers are playing with more tempo in the halfcourt, and they have dramatically increased their transition frequency (from 22nd in the league to eighth, per CTG). For Sabonis, this adds up to an extremely demanding job. While he does not dominate the ball like Luka Doncic or run around screens like Stephen Curry, he is the center of Indiana's universe in his own way. He is constantly setting screens, rolling to the rim and facilitating offense, a role that is more Nikola Jokic than Bam Adebayo. Take these back-to-back possessions against the Houston Rockets, in which the Pacers are playing off of Sabonis' activity the whole time:
Between this and his minutes -- only two players are averaging more than his 37.7 per game -- Sabonis is leading the league in frontcourt touches. (Jokic is second and has a slight lead in overall touches.) He is first in screen assists (yes, Rudy Gobert is right behind him) for the second straight season, first in passes per game (again, Jokic ranks second) and fourth in distance traveled (the only other big man in the top 10 is Julius Randle, who is 10th).
The other difference in Sabonis' game is the most obvious one: He's shooting 3s again. After being miscast as a stretch 4 as a rookie with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Sabonis virtually eliminated the long-range shot from his repertoire in Indiana. He never stopped working on it, though. As a freshman in college, when he was strictly an interior player, Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd told him his late-night shooting would translate when he was 23 or 24 years old. He is 24 now, attempting 2.3 3s a game and making 42.9 percent of them. Under Bjorkgren, long 2s are no longer on the Pacers' menu.
Sabonis arrived in Indiana in 2018 as the less celebrated of the two players in the much-derided Paul George trade. Shortly thereafter he was seen as a steal, even in the shadow of Victor Oladipo and amid skepticism about his long-term fit with center Myles Turner. Since then the Pacers have completely turned over the rest of the roster (save for fourth-year guard Edmond Sumner), endured injuries to every core player (including 2019 offseason additions T.J. Warren, who just had foot surgery, and Malcolm Brogdon, who has once again started the season playing like an All-Star) and changed the coaching staff. Somehow, through all of this, Indiana has remained a bunch of nasty, hardworking overachievers, and Sabonis has continued to improve.
On Saturday, Bjorkgren kept Turner and Sabonis on the court together for the entire third quarter. After the Pacers grabbed an offensive rebound late in the period, Turner backed up from the mid-post to the 3-point line so he could feed Sabonis down low, much to the delight of analyst Quinn Buckner, who noted the chemistry between the two on the broadcast. Turner had already assisted Sabonis twice in the previous few minutes and is thriving despite a smaller role in the offense. Now more than ever before, it is clear: When Sabonis touches the ball, good things happen.