With the 24th pick in the 1986 NBA draft, the Portland Trailblazers selected Lithuanian legend, Arvydas Sabonis despite a recent devastating Achilles tendon injury. Almost a decade would pass before Sabonis suited up for the Blazers. A decade so physically grueling on the Lithuanian that when the day finally approached for Arvydas to make his NBA debut, then Blazer GM Bob Whitsitt was told by a team physician that Sabonis would qualify for a handicap parking sticker based on the x-rays of his knees alone.
A heavy playing schedule between 1985 to 1988 took a significant toll on the future Hall of Famer’s health and durability. A stretch that culminated with a limping Sabonis leading the Soviet Union to a gold medal in the 1988 Summer Olympics. Despite protests by the Blazers medical staff that a procedure to repair Sabonis’ Achilles had not had ample time to heal, the Soviet’s cleared him and “allowed” him to participate in the games.
Thus was the reality for athletes in the political climate in the Cold War era behind the Iron Curtain. Sports were used as a propaganda tool; winning meant power and the man that survived that athletic gauntlet and took the floor in his first game in a NBA uniform on November 3rd, 1995 was not the same man the Blazers drafted in 1986.
Arvydas Sabonis’ NBA legacy will always be the question of how good he might have been had he spent that horrible decade in his prime in the NBA rather than overseas. His medical issues were well documented, and exactly just how a man whose mobility and explosiveness were lost behind a wall of chronic knee, ankle, and groin issues and playing every game of his NBA career in pain while remaining effective, remains a topic of conversation 13 years after he last laced up a pair of game shoes.
NBA great Clyde Drexler maintains that had Sabonis been allowed to play in the NBA during his prime, teamed up with the stable of talent of talent the Blazers had during those years (Drexler, Terry Porter, Buck Williams, and “Cliff” Robertson), the team would have amassed four, five, maybe as many as 6 NBA titles. Drexler guarantees that would be the case simply because Arvydas Sabonis was that good.
One of the things that made Sabonis so great was his ability as a big man to set up his teammates. In this video, please pay particular attention to Sabonis’ passing skills:
While watching, did superlatives such as, “sick”, “unreal”, “WOW”, and “unbelievable” spring to mind? Well add another, “super-natural”, because the bulk of the passing you just witnessed was done by a man that could barely walk.
Which brings us to the subject at hand, Arvydas’ son, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s “rookie” starting PF, Domantas Sabonis.
The Thunder acquired Sabonis in a trade with the Orlando Magic for Serge Ibaka which also included Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova. Ersan was recently traded for Jerami Grant, the subject of the second part in this series on Presti’s new fascination with second generation NBA talent.
Sabonis, the Magic’s #12 pick in the 2016 draft, has started every game he has played in since joining the Thunder. However, many felt that assignment was only temporary. That coach Billy Donovan was merely giving the rookie a crash course on the speed of the NBA and that he would eventually settle into a role position coming off the bench. That notion was also six pre-season and six regular season games ago, and it’s time to put that narrative to rest.
The kid is good and getting better. The NBA game is fast and so is Arvydas’ boy’s learning curve. Rookies don’t get the benefit of the doubt from NBA referees and generally pick up fouls like a dust mop picks up lint and early on, Domantas was no exception. The tendency to reach over an opponent while defending them often is the cause and Sabonis was usually guilty as charged:
FoxSports Oklahoma’s color analyst, Michael Cage, while discussing Steven Adam’s progress in becoming one of the game’s dominant post defenders, may have described it best when he talked about how critical it is for a young player to exaggerate staying vertical by keeping both of their hands clearly visible above their own head and not over their opponent:
In the image of Sabonis above, a veteran player like Blake Griffin, knowing Sabonis is in position to effectively defend any shot attempt, will turn this simple mistake to his advantage. Griffin merely exaggerated the touch from Sabonis, flopped outrageously, and drew the whistle.
The two columns from Sabonis’ 2016-17 game log to focus on are personal fouls (“PF”) and assists (“AST”). The two tell an interesting story that closely parallels the Thunder season. The Thunder opened the season with two scrambling and confusing wins over the 76ers and Suns, two teams that have amassed a grand total of two wins combined thus far. In those games, Sabonis picked up 2 and 3 fouls respectively and recorded zero assists.
In a word, he was lost. The game was moving too fast, he was too out of position and too out of sorts to either defend anyone, thus the low number of fouls, and unable to contribute much offensively, hence the goose eggs in the assist column.
As stated earlier, Domantas is a quick study and evidently, highly coach-able, and with the affable Steven Adams and a crafty defensive veteran like Nick Collison serving as mentors, he quickly began to be in the right spots at the right time. However, the beneficial outcomes still had yet to manifest.
The defensive reaching resulted in 4 fouls in their win over the Lakers in game 3, only 6:48 of time on the floor, and another goose egg in the assists column. Game 4 came with 5 fouls, not at the rapid fire pace of game 3 which resulted in 10 more minutes of PT against the Clippers, but still too many. The only bright spot? Sabonis recorded his first NBA assist in game 4.
One assist is hardly a cause for celebration, but in the game against the Clippers, while still guilty of picking up silly fouls, Sabonis was clearly more comfortable with the sets and his positioning. The overall result was a Thunder offense that actually looked like it knew what it was trying to do and a hard fought early season road win against a quality foe.
Oddly enough, the rook’s breakout game came in a blowout loss to the reviled Golden State Warriors and I posted this final boxscore at Welcome to Loud City Facebook page shortly after the game’s conclusion:
My apologies for the sloppiness, but the snippet pen tool is freehand. Anyone that has visited the page during games knows this is an example of one of my “Thunder Numbers” moments. It’s self explanatory, yellow is good and red is bad and that unfortunately, is why this box score looked like it was hemorrhaging..... except for the top line.....the rook’s line.
Only 3 fouls in 27 minutes. Fifty percent from the floor with a 3-pointer to boot. Six boards, the first double-digit scoring night of his young career, AND the first crooked number in the AST column, 3.
On a night in which it was very difficult to find a silver lining, Arvydas’ baby boy gave us one. This was no scrimmage or pre-season game. It wasn’t your every other day ho-hum, the Thunder in another game, situation. This was THE early season blood match that had been hyped since the day Kevin Durant jumped ship and took his game to the land of cucumber sandwiches, seaweed salad, and kale burgers. A game that amp-ed even higher when Russell Westbrook defied the claims he would leave the Thunder and signed a 3 year extension.
A summer of innuendo, finger pointing, and telling reactions....
... only served to make the Thunder/Warriors’ game on November 3rd one of the most highly anticipated early season match-ups in league history.
Many of the Thunder players didn’t handle the pressure well. Alex Abrines shot 1 for 6, Semaj Christon and Andre Roberson shot 3 for 12 combined, and the final free throw numbers for the Thunder were P-A-T-H-E-T-I-C, pathetic, 57.1%. That number is a subject for a whole other post all by itself.
Enes Kanter was a total no-show. Three whole minutes that produced a whopping -11 in the +/- column. Kanter’s only meaningful contribution was some trash talking at Durant, which produced this:
(on a side note, watch this video again except this time, ignore Kanter and Durant. Focus your attention on Steven Adams. His body language and especially his eyes. I’ve seen that look before)
Perhaps Adams was having a Game 4 flashback about the one that did little to have his back in the heat of the fight:
But I digress....
In the midst of chaos and emotional turmoil, Sabonis didn’t fold. He didn’t shrink from the moment, but rather, like his father, he rose to the occasion and shined brightly like the last light on sinking ship on a cold dark sea at midnight.
Overstated? I don’t think so. The Warriors game was a defining moment in a young career. A taste of the future and a shot of confidence that Sabonis carried over into the game on Saturday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Thunder Numbers, Final Box Score, November 5th, 2016:
I failed to catch it until later, but Sabonis played 24 minutes and committed only 3 fouls in a game in which Karl-Anthony Towns produced a monstrous 33 points. The rookie played within himself, accepted the fact that there are nights when a great player will just be great, didn’t over extend himself, and produced his best assist total of the season of 5 and he didn’t wait long to get the party started:
(side note - I had family over and missed the first quarter and a half of the game so some of these are brand new to me and I’m afraid my analysis will reflect that)
WOW! That is NOT a rookie type move. Thunder’s first possession of the game. After securing the rebound, Sabonis totally fools Towns, causing him to over-commit to a what? Not a pump fake, but a set fake. Sabonis squares to shoot the open 3, recognizes the Wolves interior defense is in disarray, blows past Towns, then dishes the ball to Adams for the nifty reverse lay-up precisely when the Wolves sent the double team to cover for Towns’ mistake.
Young team making young team mistake and the Thunder rookie putting the veteran moves on to cash in. Rating? SWEET.
Westbrook penetrates and passes the ball to Sabonis in the short corner. Towns has good position on Domantas who patiently waits for Roberson’s defender Wiggins to sag off him one more step, then calmly kicks the ball out to Robes for the wide open 3 from the wing.
There is absolutely nothing fancy about this play. Nothing that makes it unique which is precisely why I like it...maybe more than the first clip. Sabonis is in total command of the situation, brimming with confidence, and calmly kicks the ball out to an open shooter at precisely the right moment when Roberson is ready for it.
I believe confidence is contagious, and for Robes, who has struggled all season long with his shooting, to catch and shoot the way he did right then, backs up my assertion. I love Enes Kanter’s reaction after Robes’ shot fell. Standing with both arms raised as if saying, “See there Robes, easy game.” (you may have to click the giphy link under the image to see Kanter, but it’s worth looking at this one in the larger format anyway)
Rating? (this one gets the late Stuart Scott special) Cool as the other side of the pillow.
Really!?! Now that just ain’t fair. This kid is 20 years old and already beginning to see ahead of the play in just his 6th NBA start. His Dad could do it in his 6th game as a rookie as well, but the man was 31 years old!!
Again, poised and confident, Sabonis knows this ball is going to Robes by the time Westbrook crosses half court. NOTE: zero hesitation. Domantas is open, but Robes has the higher percentage shot, the highly valuable corner-3. Confidence breeding confidence being reinforced with trust...and this was still anybody’s game at this point.
One of the signs of a truly great player is that he makes his teammates better. Sabonis already has that quality. He demonstrated it at Gonzaga, and it is beginning to come to the surface in OKC.
Rating? ATTA KID!!
If Sabonis didn’t look like this up close....
...I would suggest checking his birth certificate. That is a next-level dime for a power forward. The assist off the pick-n-roll? That pass was made and Joffrey Lauvergne’s shot was off before the T-Wolves knew what hit them.
Watch Adreian Payne’s reaction. You know you just schooled an opponent when they give you the extra shove after the play.
Rating? SICK, as in Adreian “I just got owned by a rookie” Payne, sick.
Finally, the prettiest little assist you will ever want to see. So many moving pieces and executed to perfection, almost straight outa Gregg Popovich’s playbook. The Thunder set up in horns. After receiving the ball at his spot on the elbow, Lauvergne waits for (another rookie) Semaj Christon to cross in front of him at the baseline on his way to the corner to start the play. As Christon is coming to the corner, Abrines is sliding up to the wing spot and as soon as Semaj arrives, Abrines breaks to the basket. Semaj’s defender loses sight of the ball as Abrines passes between him and the ball and over commits to an anticipated open shooter at the wing.
Sabonis reads this and calmly takes one dribble toward the basket, pump fakes to freeze Payne and keep the passing lane open long enough to fire a bounce pass to Semaj slashing uncontested to the rim on the baseline.
My fingers are tired just from typing all that and Sabonis executes his part of the play with ease in just over a second. Good players make tough plays look easy. I loved Serge, but this type of play was not a strength and probably a big reason he is in Florida now.
Rating? Too easy Drill Sergeant, too easy!
We are starting to see facets of Billy Donovan’s offense we had hoped to see more of but never got last season, and the Sabonis for Ibaka exchange is beginning to play a big...big role in that. (sorry, I couldn’t resist the Donovan double adjective tendency there).
This is R.K. Anthony for Thunder Nation and I’m out!
What do you think of Domantas Sabonis? Drop a comment below and let us know.