Lithuania’s Sabonis Now a Franchise Cornerstone

Domantas Sabonis
Domantas Sabonis, DELFI / Kiril Čachovskij

Domantas Sabonis is now a franchise cornerstone. Yet, the 24-year-old lefty looked everything but a star in his rookie season for the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016, playing only 20 minutes an outing for the Thunder and recording per game averages of 5.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.0 assist. But an offseason trade to the Indiana Pacers in the summer of 2017 opened a world of possibilities for the young big man, who responded to his increased role by posting 11.6 points per game, 7.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists as a super-sub.

Sabonis was even better a season later, nearly averaging a double-double off the Indiana bench (14.1 points per game and 9.3 rebounds) on a career-high 59.0% shooting from the field. This improvement was duly recognised, as Sabonis garnered votes for both the Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player awards. Sabonis lost to Lou Williams and Pascal Siakam, but had served notice that he was a force to be reckoned with — a skilled big man who could do damage in the paint but make plays on the perimeter.

The 2019 offseason was noteworthy for the then rising star, who once again represented Lithuania in a friendly against European rivals Serbia and their main man, NBA superstar Nikola Jokič. Sabonis, who for the first time shared the court with fellow NBA player Jonas Valančiūnas, more than held his own against Jokič and the talented Serb frontcourt, scoring 8 points in Lithuania’s 72-68 loss despite getting into foul trouble. Even with that loss, it was clear that Sabonis was ready to make the leap and establish himself as a star.

The Pacers franchise likely saw the same thing that offseason, as they gave Sabonis a 4-year, $77 million (LTL 227.36 million) extension. Sabonis promptly repaid the Pacers’ trust, recording career-highs in points (18.5), rebounds, (12.3), assists (5.0), blocks (0.5) and steals (0.8) as a full-time starter. The Gonzaga alum is doing even better this season, with per game averages of 20.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 0.5 blocks, and 0.9 steals.

Crucially, Sabonis is now officially the Pacers’ undisputed leader after the team traded former main man Victor Oladipo to the Houston Rockets as part of the James Harden deal early this season. The bruising lefty has looked comfortable in his new starring role, leading the Pacers to a winning record (14-13) as of this writing, with his vastly improved inside-out playmaking, aggressive rebounding and deft passing.

In fact, Sabonis’s all-around play makes the Pacers fun to watch — and a tough out for any team, particularly in the Eastern Conference. The Sabonis-led squad is projected by Bwin Sports to finish 6th in the suddenly competitive East, behind the Brooklyn Nets, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics, and the Miami Heat. Even so, look for the Pacers to exceed expectations as Sabonis continues to impress as Indiana’s leading man.

Of course, this star turn is not surprising. For the past five years, Sabonis has been starring for Lithuania, showcasing versatility, a soft touch, pick-and-roll efficiency and ferocious rebounding in FIBA play. Unfortunately, he never got to show off those skills in Oklahoma City, where everything went through Russell Westbrook. Fortunately, that 2017 trade to Indiana happened, giving Sabonis the opportunity to prove his worth as a player. The young star has taken full advantage of this opportunity, ultimately becoming the Pacers’ franchise cornerstone.

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