A little over a week remains until the Oklahoma City Thunder square off with the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season! All this football calls for a bit of a palate cleanser, and luckily the Thunder are here to save you from the midseason blahs.
For my preseason pieces, my plan is to detail three young players on the Thunder. Here’s last week’s piece on Andre Roberson’s Most Improved Player chances. This week, I’d like to talk about one of the Thunder’s most fascinating new faces: Domantas Sabonis.
Sabonis–acquired on the draft night trade that sent Serge Ibaka to Orlando–could end up being one of the steals of the draft, and he looks to be every bit worth the price the Thunder paid. If Sam Presti is high on a draft pick, the past seven years or so have shown him to be correct more times than not. Presti is a draft wizard who might actually just be a real wizard on the side.
There’s a lot to be excited about with Sabonis: he looked serviceable in Olympic play (on a deep Lithuanian team nonetheless), and he’s started every preseason game for the Thunder. Domantas–Domas for short–has averaged 6.6 points and 2.6 rebounds and assists per game through the preseason. He’s also had a very healthy amount of playing time, tallying 24.9 minutes a game, fourth-highest on the team.
He hasn’t exactly lit it up statistically, and he certainly won’t have a huge impact on the box score, at least right out of the gate. He’s not a dominant player, but he’s a heady one. His game is nuanced, especially for a 20 year old. Franchise Thunder Insider Fred Katz wrote for the Norman Transcript that Steven Adams is acting as a mentor to Sabonis, like a dad. Adams is already lauding the rookie’s established basketball IQ, but he’s more impressed with his will to learn:
“When you give him advice, it’s not falling on deaf ears,” Adams said. “He’s actually trying to use the information and implement it into his game, which is terrific, because it helps our system out a whole bunch, and makes progress a lot faster. So, kudos to him, mate.”
Judging by this statement, platitudes like the following will shortly follow for Domas: gym rat, first-in-last-out, lunch pail guy–you know, limp compliments given to players by fans who make excuses for a player’s lack of inherent talent. But that’s the thing about Domas: he’s got the potential to go along with the intangibles and the work ethic. It may be a few years before he realizes that potential, but it typically takes big men longer to make the NBA transition than guards.
And a big reason (a 7’3″, 291 lbs reason, to be exact) for Sabonis’ potential is his father Arvydas, who was an NBA legend despite being stuck behind the Iron Curtain in the prime of his career. When Arvydas Sabonis finally came over, hobbled by bad knees and a bum achilles, he still brought the league to heel. He’s on of the most critically underrated players ever.
So, yeah, Domantas certainly has the pedigree. Check out his NCAA tournament highlights:
He’s immediately impressive in the post: his footwork is beyond his years, has great body control, and can easily absorb contact and finish through the bump. He just looks comfortable in the post, whereas Serge Ibaka always kind of treated paint like lava on offense. Domas comfortable finishing with both hands, though he prefers his dominant left hand. He was one of the most efficient forwards on offense in the nation in last year’s sophomore campaign.
Domas is also an adept rebounder, which should endear him to Billy Donovan immediately. His hustle and determination on both the offensive and defensive boards will fit right in with the Thunder’s M.O.
Lastly, but most importantly: he’s highly intelligent, the kind of player who will be able reap every ounce of his natural ability. He makes smart passes (although not always on the mark) and makes his teammates better just by being on the court. Domas seems like the kind of player who just makes the right choices, both on and off the court–I’m looking at you, Mitch McGary.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Sabonis’ young career is the trust he’s already received from his teammates and coaches. OKC has a veritable log jam at power forward, so Sabonis’ playing time is a good sign that he’s NBA-ready. The fact that Donovan is trying so hard to acclimate his rookie to NBA basketball should tell you everything you need to know about Billy D’s opinion of the rookie. He’s going to be a solid part of the rotation, and he has starter upside if he can put it together right away á la Kristaps Porzingis last season. Domas will take his lumps–all NBA rookies do at some point–but don’t be surprised if he cracks the starting rotation by the end of the season.