How Domantas Sabonis unleashed his fighting spirit to become a steal for the Pacers
Oladipo may be getting most of the shine, but this second-year big man has been phenomenal in Indiana
Domantas Sabonis asked Tommy Lloyd to stop the car. The Gonzaga assistant coach had picked up the prized recruit -- and son of Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis -- from the Spokane airport and was bringing him to campus in 2014. But, 5,000 miles away from home, Sabonis knew something bad was about to happen.
"He puked his guts out," Lloyd said.
Lloyd asked Sabonis if he was carsick. No, he said, but sometimes, when he's anxious or upset, it manifests physically. Sabonis is close to his three older brothers and younger sister -- and his hometown of Kaunas, Lithuania. Now, he had chosen to play college basketball on the other side of the world. This was regular old homesickness; it just revealed itself more, um, colorfully than usual.
Recalling the incident, Lloyd laughed. "He probably will kill me, but this shows how far he's come," he said. While Sabonis' NCAA career might have had an inauspicious start, he went on to fully embrace life at Gonzaga. Off the court, his teammates became a new kind of family. On the court, he became a beloved figure in Spokane because of the rugged toughness that he shares with his father, the mentality that Lloyd saw when he first scouted him as a 16-year-old.
"He's always had it," Lloyd said. "And we kind of call it the Lithuanian fighting spirit. Basketball is such a part of their culture, and they play the game, they approach it with emotion. It's more than just a game to them. He has this amazing balance of being very nice and polite off the floor, but on the floor he's got a real mean, nasty streak to him. It's kind of a brilliant combination."
That nasty streak is shining brighter than ever before. Sabonis joined the Indiana Pacers this offseason in the heavily criticized Paul George trade. But after struggling with the Oklahoma City Thunder for his first NBA season, he's come into his own. This month, Sabonis is averaging 15.1 points and 9.6 rebounds and shooting 57 percent. He is keeping Indiana steady without injured center Myles Turner: In Sabonis' 14 starts, he's averaged 11.2 rebounds a game.
And the reviews are in. Sabonis is living up to his family name -- and building a new NBA family of his own. Lance Stephenson says Sabonis makes the game easy. Cory Joseph says he appreciates how Sabonis throws his body around and gets loose balls. Turner, who is a month and a half older than Sabonis, says he is learning from his new teammate.
"Man, he's f---ing terrible," laughed Victor Oladipo, who came over from the Thunder with Sabonis in the George trade. "I'm just playing. He's awesome, man. I mean, I've been watching Damo since he was at Gonzaga and then he joined OKC last year with me. To see his growth over just a year span is amazing."
Sabonis didn't throw up when he joined the Thunder, but the adjustments came hard. The No. 11 pick of the 2016 NBA Draft, he was thrust into the starting lineup of a team that had undergone a shocking offseason of changes.
While he kept that starting job for 66 games, Sabonis struggled with efficiency in a new league and a totally different style of play. In college he had developed into the fulcrum of Gonzaga's offense, bullying people in the post and initiating actions from the perimeter. In Oklahoma City, his skills as a facilitator were mostly hidden with the ball in Russell Westbrook's hands. He turned into a stretch-four with Steven Adams manning the middle, taking 159 3-pointers and making only 32.1 percent of them. He ran back in transition rather than pursuing offensive rebounds.
Sabonis did his best to play his role but was not able to show all his skills. When the George trade broke, the Pacers' front office was largely skewered. That deal looks totally different now -- they are sixth in the East, with Oladipo a surefire All-Star and Sabonis emerging as a major part of their core. Coach Nate McMillan gives the two of them equal credit for the team's improved ball movement, citing Sabonis' ability to pass, handle the ball, screen and roll, make reads and, most importantly, execute dribble-handoffs.
"That's kind of the new pick-and-roll," McMillan said.
The seeds for this were planted shortly after the trade, as Sabonis went straight to Indianapolis rather than playing for the Lithuanian national team. "Getting to play, getting to know each other all summer helped everyone with their chemistry," Sabonis said, and it also allowed McMillan to see what he could do up close. The Pacers hadn't employed someone who could get the ball moving, reverse it and initiate dribble-handoffs like Sabonis since David West, and this allowed McMillan to implement the movement-oriented offense that he preferred, one that is more difficult to scout and to defend.
Soon after Sabonis arrived, Turner was taken with his basketball IQ. "I was telling everybody since he's been here, he can play, man -- he's always in the right spots, he just knows how to play," Turner said. Indiana veteran Al Jefferson, who works with Sabonis on his post moves daily, was also impressed with how advanced Sabonis is for his age. Jefferson didn't even know Arvydas was his father at first; after finding out, his intelligence and instincts made more sense.
As soon as the regular season started, it was clear that McMillan's system was ideal for Sabonis. He scored 16 points on 7-for-7 shooting in the opener and had an 18-point, 12-rebound night three days later. He was involved in every offensive possession, battling hard in the paint and showing off the footwork that led Gonzaga coach Mark Few to once compare him to a Siberian tiger.
"It reminds me of those days at Gonzaga," Sabonis said.
"When I saw him play his first game I was like 'oh, it's perfect,'" Lloyd said. "They're playing Domas in a way that suits his strengths, that we envisioned him playing, the way we played with him at Gonzaga. We loved moving him around the floor."
The puking incident was not the only time Sabonis had trouble in college. As a freshman he was easily frustrated when things didn't go his way on the court.
"If he thought you fouled him and it didn't get called, in practice he'll get pissed and he'll say something to the coaches, but then he'll go down to the other end and just bludgeon somebody," Lloyd said. "We really had to talk to him about how to channel those emotions and that energy and use it positively, not go down and do something destructive."
Lloyd explained this over the phone in the same San Diego hotel where, three years earlier, Sabonis had come to his room in tears. The then-18-year-old was searching for his role and not pleased with how he'd played in the Bulldogs' previous game.
"This is a kid who cares -- I mean, cares to his core about the game, about how he plays, about his teammates," Lloyd said. "It was out of wanting to do more and being frustrated with himself."
Sabonis evolved into someone who played with "more of a controlled rage, not just an absolute rage," Lloyd said. If he wanted to play major minutes and not foul out, he had no choice. Perhaps a bigger challenge, though, was stepping outside of his comfort zone.
As a sophomore, Sabonis shot 5-for-14 from 3-point range. As uninspiring as that may sound, it represented real progress given that he didn't attempt a single one as a freshman. Sabonis hated missing shots and had to learn to trust himself. The coaching staff encouraged him to shoot with confidence when open and assured him that misses wouldn't mean he'd be taken out of the game.
"He came to us as an absolute non-shooter," Lloyd said. "Bad free throw shooter. If it wasn't around the basket, he wasn't successful. To his credit, he's such a hard worker, he worked every day after practice, late at night his freshman year on his perimeter shot without taking any shots in games. I told him, I said, 'Domas, this work on your shooting skill is something you're developing now -- the work you put in is going to translate when you're 23, 24 years old.' I thought it might take that long. And he put it in. He put in the work."
In late October, Sabonis came down with an upper respiratory infection. "He was sick as a dog," Jefferson said, and no one would have blamed him for missing the Pacers' Halloween game against the Sacramento Kings. Sabonis not only played, but had 12 points, 16 rebounds and five assists in 25 minutes, helping them earn a blowout victory.
"He's about as tough as they come," McMillan said. "The guy is fearless. His father was the same way. His father was of course a Hall of Famer, but yeah, the IQ, his ability to pass, his ability to read, Domas has that. And he's a young guy. He's going to get even better at that. Yeah, I see a lot of what his father could do on the floor in Domas."
Sabonis is in his element in Indiana. It is obvious every time he screams after a big dunk or pumps his fist when he finds a cutting teammate for an easy layup. He said he appreciates that McMillan simply told him to be aggressive and make plays. This has freed him to display that Lithuanian fighting spirit more frequently than he did as a rookie.
Now that Sabonis has shown he belongs, the question is how he will continue to develop. Part of that is dependent on how he works with Turner, Indiana's starting center for now and the foreseeable future. The two of them have shared the frontcourt together for just 173 minutes, but McMillan sees them as a long-term pairing.
"They both can step out and shoot the 3, they both are good in pick-and-rolls," McMillan said. "I think Domas is more of a pick-and-roll guy, Myles has developed into a pick-and-pop guy pretty good. Their ability to be versatile, to play the 4 and the 5 in our offense, that's something that we are looking at and trying to develop more.
"The fact that you have that size -- we are a team that we struggle rebounding the ball, and with those two guys out on the floor, we feel that we should be a better rebounding team. And Domas has had some minutes at the 4, guarding some of these spread 4s. Myles does a good job of defending the basket. So yeah, we feel that that could be the future: those two bigs out on the floor playing together."
From this perspective, Sabonis' time as a stretch-four in Oklahoma City can be seen as a gift. He has hardly taken any 3s this season, but he will need to be able to do that if he is going to become the most well-rounded player he can be. That's why, before every game, he can be seen working his way around the 3-point line and firing away.
That pregame work might not pay off right away, but he is only 21 years old. If he has proven anything in his young career, it is that, with time, he will get comfortable. And when he gets comfortable, watch out.
"It's the combination of skill, mobility, mentality, but then there's something inside of him that burns, you know?" Lloyd said. "As coaches, you're always looking for that in a player. This guy is 100 percent self-motivated, 100 percent unselfish and has the ability to get 100 percent pissed off in the snap of a finger and compete. If you could bottle that and give it to everybody, it'd be amazing. But it's just one of those things that, you know, probably a lot of it has to do with DNA."
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