An in-depth analytical breakdown of Thunder rookie Domantas Sabonis’ strengths and weaknesses ahead of his debut NBA season.
Domantas Sabonis, the 11th pick of the 2016 draft, is an intriguing young prospect for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Born in Portland, though of Lithuanian nationality, Sabonis comes from great basketball stock; his father, Arvydas Sabonis, was considered one of the world’s best big men during his prime.
Domantas is currently competing for the Lithuanian National Team in the Olympics, where he is making an impact for the 3rd ranked team in the competition. This is a good opportunity for Thunder fans to catch a glimpse of Sabonis in action prior to him playing with the Thunder. However, as many don’t have time to scout players on their own, this is my attempt to aid you in getting to know Domantas Sabonis prior to the season.
Sabonis is one of the 2016 Draft’s most offensively refined big men. He has the skill, vision, and intellect to make an immediate impact for the Thunder on that end of the floor. During his time with Gonzaga, he was extremely effective at scoring the ball. He averaged 30.4 points per 100 possessions, while remaining very efficient – his True Shooting Percentage was 66%. He was also adept at drawing fouls, averaging 9.5 free throw attempts per 100 possessions.
One of the most important offensive attributes for a big man to possess is an ability to finish at the rim. Whether the opportunities come from the post or via pick-and-roll, it is important to take advantage of prime position in the paint. For young players, this is often difficult, as it often requires great touch and a variety of moves to get past defenders. Sabonis comes into the league with many of these moves already refined.
While at Gonzaga, Sabonis scored 1.15 points per possession from the post. For reference, Joe Johnson was 7th in the NBA in PPP — with 1.15 on post-up attempts. Though NBA defenders are more advanced, and we shouldn’t expect this same efficiency immediately upon his Thunder arrival, it shows he has a good foundation to build upon.
One of the ways Sabonis set himself to finish efficiency was by establishing great position prior to the catch. He is very intelligent (as expected from someone with an all-time great parent to teach him) about how he moves off the ball. On this play, he is fighting for position, and with every step, seals his defender away from the basket. Once he has inside position, he creates space to catch the pass for an open layup.
This can be especially effective in transition. If the opponent is back with matching numbers, but poor matchups (i.e., a guard on a big man), striking fast by sealing off space to catch the ball creates easy opportunities. Much of the work done in posting up is completed prior to catching the ball, and Sabonis seems to understand this.
This play is very well defended; however, Sabonis is still able to score. All of his kick out options are guarded, and while the cut under the basket does keep the second help defender from stepping up, he is still double covered. Meanwhile, he is able to use his reach to throw up a nice hook shot. While his hook shot isn’t particularly fluid, it’s effective at getting the ball over defenders.
This clip shows Sabonis’ ability to hit that hook shot with his right, or non-dominant, hand. One of his biggest weaknesses inside is his tendency to settle for lower quality looks that allow him to use his left hand, rather than an easier look with his right. This is fairly normal; players feel more comfortable using their dominant hand. However, being able to score with both hands is essential inside, as the amount of space a player has is extremely limited. Sabonis is capable of that.
While this play isn’t occurring off of an isolation post-up attempt, it shows one of Sabonis’ skills that is very useful for big men. He has great timing with his fakes inside, thwarting many block attempts with a simple ball fake. At times, he will use several in quick succession to avoid multiple defenders. His instincts inside allow him to get easy looks even in a crowd.
Pick and Roll
For OKC Thunder big men, one of the most important skills when playing next to Russell Westbrook is being able to finish in the pick and roll. Westbrook, by nature of his explosive athleticism, draws defenders away from other players. If they aren’t able to take advantage of the space created by this, defenses can double Westbrook effectively. Sabonis is capable of finishing these opportunities.
On this play, Sabonis sees the path to the rim open and realizes he is either going to get there uncontested, or have a much smaller defender on him. As a result, he slips the screen early, creating separation in the paint. The ensuing pass actually leads him beneath the basket, forcing him to use a ball fake to freeze the help defender. The initial recognition of how to beat the defense was excellent, though, and gave him good position to finish inside.
One tendency that could develop into a weakness for Sabonis is that of slipping screens early. If the perimeter defender is quick enough, this can lead to the defense recovering easily, making the entire play a waste of effort. However, in this particular case, Sabonis’ defender played far enough off to make slipping the screen effective. Basically, to avoid giving up an open jump shot, both defenders had to stay with the guard.
Sabonis does an excellent job in the clip of knowing where to stop on his roll. The other big man is right by the rim, making it unlikely for him to get a good look in the restricted area. The trap on the ball handler also limits the passing lanes. Sabonis picks a spot that gives him an open look at the rim while still providing his point guard an easy passing opportunity. His positioning awareness is excellent.
One of the biggest areas of weakness for Oklahoma City’s big men is sub par court-vision and passing. While Nick Collison has always been an excellent passer and Steven Adams is improving, players like Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter, and Kendrick Perkins have never had that ability. Domantas’ father was known for his great vision, and seems to have passed that on to his son. Being able to pass out of the post would pay dividends for the bench offense, especially with other players who move well or are great shooters.
On the college level, Sabonis often drew double teams in the post, giving him good kick-out opportunities. While it is unlikely he’ll demand the same attention from NBA defenses, Sabonis will inherently have more space to operate due to the longer 3-point line. If a defender helps off of a shooter, he can kick out for a high-percentage 3-point look. Players with quick releases, like Anthony Morrow, can take advantage of that extra foot of space.
Again, Sabonis gets position that demands a help defender come over. This is actually a relatively tough pass to make, as it has to be forced between two defenders. Sabonis uses just enough of a ball fake to get the second defender in the air, though, and can make the dump off for a dunk. The small, subtle motions he uses to manipulate defenders often go unnoticed, but they are essential to his success inside.
Sometimes, even if a player is willing to make the right pass, they hesitate to see the court and react. Often, the open look has a limited window of opportunity that closes due to this momentary lapse. Sabonis shows his ability to respond quickly with a touch pass in the above video. He realizes he is drawing a double team on the catch, and chooses to make the easy play rather than force something.
Sabonis will probably join this team as one of its best front-court passers from day one. The Thunder should make every effort to take advantage of this, as it would add another element on offense, especially when Russell Westbrook is off the floor.
Sabonis, like many college bigs, spent most of his time working in the paint. His size advantage was significant on that level, and in that area he could score most efficiently. However, when he reaches the NBA, he will no longer be the biggest player on the court, and it will be imperative he expand his range.
While there isn’t a large sample to work with, Sabonis seems as though he might be capable of shooting a decent clip from outside. His shooting stroke is relatively short and mechanical, but appears effective. He shot 35.7% from deep in college, but it was on only 14 attempts, allowing little to be gathered from the data set. However, being willing to shoot when open could increase his opportunities both inside and out, thus allowing him to pop off screens rather than always roll to the basket.
This is very close to an NBA length attempt. The confident way he steps into this shot, the good shooting base, and the simple (though somewhat tight) shooting motion all point toward developing consistency. He uses less legs in his shot than many shooters do, but still gets pretty good arc on the made three. Sabonis being able to hit threes with any level of consistency could earn him the starting PF role.
Being able to set up quickly off motion for a shot is essential to the success of the pick and pop. If a player spends too much time setting their feet, the defender can recover and contest the shot. Sabonis shows the ability to move quickly into his shot here, in part due to the simplicity of his motion. He also has a relatively high release, allowing him to shoot over defenders unobstructed.
Sabonis is clearly a capable offensive player. Like many rookies, his ability to gain playing time will be contingent upon his own defensive performance. As a big, this is especially important. Big men generally have a much larger impact, defensively, than guards. For Sabonis to get playing time and potentially fill one of the holes at forward, he will have to develop quickly on the defensive end.
Power Forwards often get switched onto guards, forcing them to play defense on the perimeter. One of the keys to defending a smaller, faster player is to have quick lateral movement and good footwork. Sabonis has the former; his feet move very quickly and remain active on defense, allowing him to slide with the offensive player. His footwork, however, can get sloppy at times and put him behind the play.
This play shows both the good and the bad of his footwork. His feet keep moving, but when the guard uses a hesitation move, he plants his feet too far behind. When the guard attacks, this puts him just milliseconds behind. However, he moves quickly enough to stay between the guard and the basket, allowing him to use his length to contest the shot.
When bigs defend guards, they don’t have to be quicker than the guard, they just have to be quick enough to stay within range. Their greater reach gives them leeway over the smaller guard, making up for the speed differential.
This play shows Sabonis sliding well with the with the offensive player. It looks like Gonzaga may be running a zone and the ball handler gets passed off to Sabonis. He slides to cut off the baseline, forcing a fadeaway,18-foot shot. Sabonis has quick enough feet to keep up with guards, and with improved footwork, he could be excellent on the perimeter.
One of the biggest concerns for Sabonis as a rookie will be post defense. He has a slender frame, and while he is stronger than he looks, Sabonis might easily end up being bullied in the post by bigger power forwards. Fortunately, the number of teams that can take advantage of this deficiency to a point it becomes problematic isn’t high — as long as he develops into a serviceable post defender.
The offensive player in this play attempts to use a series of pivots to get Sabonis to respond and possibly foul. Sabonis does well to maintain position in front of the basket, remain vertical, and not give any ground. Defending without fouling will be critical to increased playing time, and is often a big struggle for rookie big men. Sabonis averaged 5.9 fouls per 100 possessions last season: just .5 more than Steven Adams. However, the NBA moves much faster, and that mark is about 1.5 more than Adams did in college. That is concerning, as one of the biggest complaints about Steven Adams as a rookie was his tendency to get in foul trouble. It is likely that, for a season or two, fans will have similar complaints about Sabonis.
I included this clip to show one thing: Sabonis doesn’t have great length for a big man (only 6’10”, with a 6’11” wingspan), but he does have pretty good timing. While this isn’t a good offensive play by any stretch, a big man shooting with space ought to get off the shot here. Sabonis manages to maximize his reach by timing his jump perfectly to block this shot. Will this be enough to make up for his lack of length in the NBA? It’s hard to say, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Perhaps the most important part of defending as a big is the ability to play help defense. Sabonis has shown an aptitude for this that can hopefully translate into the NBA. While he may not be the weakside shot blocker that Ibaka was, or the offensive foul drawer that Collison was, just being in the right place at the right time can often be enough to lower the odds of the shot going in, which is ultimately what defense is about.
My favorite part of this play actually isn’t the help defense. Sure, Sabonis times his leap well and meets the ball handler right at the rim for the block. But what is encouraging is that he is the first player on the ground for the loose ball. Hustle always translates, and players who sacrifice themselves for the team can generally find rotation minutes.
While this is a simple play, it is a common situation NBA power forwards find themselves in. With the increased ability of power forwards to stretch the floor, defenders are forced to split their attention between the shooter and the driver. In this case, Sabonis waits until the defender commits to the layup before jumping to meet him. This is textbook help defense.
Overall, it’s tough to tell if Sabonis will be a positive defender on the NBA level. He has some physical limitations that won’t change, but seems to be pretty intelligent about position and timing. His propensity for foul trouble is concerning, but not surprising. Defense will definitely be the deciding factor on how far he goes in the league, though.
Sabonis was an elite rebounder on the college level. Per 100 possessions, he pulled down 21.1 boards, despite his limited vertical jump. Rebounding often translates to the NBA level, which is a good sign for Sabonis. It certainly adds to his ability to impact the game, even if scoring or defending is giving him issues.
NBA Comparison: Marc Gasol
I’m sure your first thought when reading this was of disbelief. After all, I just expressed concerns about Sabonis’ defense, and now I’m comparing him to a former Defensive Player of the Year. But before you assume this is an overly optimistic choice, hear me out.
Using the Rookie Retrospective done by DraftExpress on Marc Gasol, we will compare where he was when drafted to where Sabonis is now.
“The young Gasol is a rather skilled player and delivers some nice intensity. He can play in the low post, although he could take better advantage of his big body and improve his jump-hook, he has a decent mid-range jumper, can pass the ball, understands the game and can even put the ball on the floor, although it’s not that much of a help considering his limited quickness.”
Marc came into the league with a pretty well rounded and developed offensive game. He could shoot from the midrange area, had a variety of post moves, a good understanding of the game, and the ability to dribble if need be. The biggest difference here is Gasol had limited quickness but very good size, while Sabonis is the opposite.
“On the negative side, this Final Four again exposed that he could certainly use a better left hand. He loses space and effectiveness going for an orthodox right-handed short shot instead of a left-handed jump-hook whenever he attacks a rival from the left.”
I mentioned earlier that Sabonis has a tendency to choose a lesser left-handed shot over a better right-handed shot. Other than the dominant hand being different, this is similar to concerns Gasol had coming into the league. Both players would rather take an awkward shot with their dominant hand rather than with their off-hand.
“Indeed his shooting range extends out to the [European] three-point line, while he greatly combines his scoring power with his passing game, not really looking for definitive passes, but feeding his team’s offensive flow by distributing the ball from both the high and low post.”
While Sabonis didn’t seem to distribute from the high post much in college, he showed the vision required to do so. His ability to shoot the ball from midrange and three-point range match up well with that of Gasol as a rookie.
“How much will Gasol’s lack of athleticism get exposed in the NBA? I guess that’s the question every single decision maker will be asking himself when it comes to evaluating the big Spanish center. With much more individual oriented defenses, it’s a very legit concern. In the ACB League, he relies on his excellent positioning to emerge as a very solid defensive presence. It’s not going to be the same in the NBA.”
Both players struggle with athleticism, particularly in the vertical category. As a young player, Gasol also was lacking in lateral quickness. Ultimately, the ability for them to succeed on the defensive end stemmed from positioning and timing rather than raw athletic ability.
“He wasn’t really a go-to guy for Girona on the offensive end (mainly because of Real Madrid’s double-teaming defense), but especially he doesn’t make a great impact on the defensive end. His limited mobility gets exploited in pick-and-roll situations that the opponents throw at him; he’s not a great intimidator, he allows smaller opponents to shoot over him; and given his superb size, he’s not the best rebounder around.”
Marc Gasol actually seemed to have more concerns defensively than Sabonis coming into the league. Unlike Sabonis, he wasn’t quick or a great rebounder, and while he had a size advantage, he was also a center rather than a power forward. He developed into a DPoY, so it isn’t unreasonable to expect Sabonis to become a positive defender for the Thunder.
While I don’t expect Sabonis to instantly become a Marc Gasol level player, and truthfully, it’s doubtful he ever reaches that level, I do expect him to be a good player for Oklahoma City. His skill set is similar, and OKC would be well off to maximize his ability to impact the offense with his court vision and skill inside.
To be entirely honest, though, the main reason I thought Gasol in the first place was the similarity I saw in their jump shot form.
Sabonis uses his legs just a little bit more than Gasol, but both players shoot very short-stroked shots with almost no lift. This lets them get the shot off almost unexpectedly, helping them to facilitate or shoot from the high post from the same basic motion.