Domantas Sabonis: Indiana’s Franchise Cornerstone

At the start of his NBA career, Domantas Sabonis was just a mere throw-in for a blockbuster draft night trade. And now, the son of a former FIBA great is leading the Indiana Pacers to potentially great heights.

Humble Beginnings in OKC

Some fans may recognize Domantas Sabonis as being the son of former Portland Trail Blazer, Arvydas Sabonis. Others may remember him for being part of a notable draft trade that occurred during the 2016 NBA Draft. Sabonis, who was drafted by the Orlando Magic, was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder along with Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova for Serge Ibaka.

Ibaka would average 15.1 points per game for the Magic before Orlando traded him to the Toronto Raptors. Oladipo averaged close to 16 points per game, in his lone season in OKC.

And what about Sabonis? Starting 66 games for the Thunder, Sabonis only averaged 5.9 points and 3.6 rebounds per game. His field goal percentage was below forty percent, which was not a good sign. At the time, most thought that Sabonis was just another guy on the Thunder squad. But despite his rookie struggles, Sabonis had nowhere to go but up.

Off to Indiana

On July 6, 2017, the Thunder would trade Sabonis and Oladipo to the Indiana Pacers for Paul George. And it was in Indiana that Sabonis started hitting his stride.

In his first two seasons with the Pacers, Sabonis served as a backup center to Myles Turner. His scoring and rebounding improved over time, and his shooting efficiency got better, too. In his two seasons as a backup for Indiana, Sabonis averaged nearly thirteen points and 8.5 rebounds per game, as a Pacer.

It wasn’t until the 2019-20 season that everything started coming together for Sabonis. In his first year as a full-time starter, Sabonis averaged 18.5 points and 12.4 rebounds per game, maintaining a double-double in 62 games. Even better, he was named to his first All-Star Game, as a reserve. His ability to screen in the pick-and-roll game became somewhat of a staple of his, he was in the 44th percentile as a roll man. He was in the 51st percentile the season before.

It seemed as if things were really looking up for Domantas Sabonis.

Then in the summer of 2020, before the start of the NBA bubble, Sabonis suffered a setback. He suffered from a plantar fasciitis foot injury, which kept him out of the bubble indefinitely. He left the Pacers in July to have surgery done on his left foot, thereby missing the rest of the Pacers’ season. With Sabonis out of their lineup, the Pacers got swept by the Miami Heat in the playoffs.

Coming Back Strong

After spending the offseason rehabbing from his foot injury, Sabonis would return to the Pacers. And he would start the 2020-21 season in style. In the Pacers’ season opener, Sabonis scored a career-high 32 points against the Knicks. He would keep up the effort so far this season as a double-double machine, averaging 20.5 points and 12.2 rebounds per game. Amazingly enough, he has recorded a double-double in eighteen of the nineteen games he played so far.

But that’s not all Sabonis has done. He has also added a flair of passing to his arsenal, with 5.8 assists per game. His passing ability was developed last year when he was exhibiting quickness and decision-making in his passes, with 1.83 seconds per touch. The quickness and decisiveness have carried over into this season, and it seems to be paying off dividends. Among power forwards and centers, Sabonis is fourth behind Nikola Jokic, Draymond Green, and Julius Randle.

Sabonis’ shooting isn’t so shabby, either. He currently averages 2.5 three-point attempts per game, shooting .362 percent from behind the arc. His free-throw shooting still could use some work, as his percentage is below seventy percent. It’s his lowest since his rookie year.

Indiana’s Newest Focal Point

It is a shame that many basketball fans never got to witness Arvydas Sabonis in his prime. Arvydas spent his best years playing overseas, and by the time he crossed over to the NBA, he was plagued by injuries. While Arvydas’ solid NBA stint still left a lot to be desired, fans could still witness a glimpse of his talent and potential in his son, Domantas.

After Oladipo was traded to the Houston Rockets as part of the James Harden trade, Domantas Sabonis had gained a bit more responsibility on the team. The same has been expected from Sabonis’ running mate Malcolm Brogdon, who is having a fantastic season himself. Still, the Pacers can go as far as Sabonis can take them, and the Lithuanian big man is still running like a well-oiled machine.

And the best (and most scary) part is? He still has much room to grow.

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