How Can Domantas Sabonis Level Up?

By Matt Esposito

Since R. Kelly’s fall from grace, I’ve turned to other covers of his perpetually effervescent I Believe I Can Fly. I landed on a version by R&B legend James Ingram; a rabbit hole that led me to another one of his hits: Everything Must Change. Should this song have been floating in the background as I answered a question from Kory Waldron; one of the best writers currently covering the Indiana Pacers?

He wanted to know what Domantas Sabonis must do to reach that next tier of star play. Well, must everything change for the first time All-Star? Before we flesh that out, refamiliarize on what makes the Pacer’s stud so damn good.

This season, Domas is hitting 54 percent from the field while taking over 10 field goal attempts per game. Additionally, he serves out 5 nightly assists. Since the birth of the league, this feat has been accomplished only 16 times. Check out some of the good company Sabonis is with on this list.

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What’s more, Sabonis has blossomed into a dual threat offensively. 30 percent of his possessions come as a roll man, likely due to being in the 72nd percentile (Cleaning the Glass) for long-midrange jumpers. His pick and pop to the midrange is elite and it also allows him to create for others in the same court space that a short roller would.

Sabonis’ greatest leap this year came as a passer. For his position he places in the 98th and 91st percentiles for both assist and assist to usage ratio percentages, respectively. When short rolling from screens he is able to create magic. This no-look to Myles Turner is evidence.

When teams scheme against the league leader in screen assists, he takes advantage. Here Sabonis fakes a DHO and perfectly times a pass that begs a “Jokic of the East” comparison.

Incidentally, this clip shows Domantas making Jokic look foolish with a touch pass from the post; a demonstration of how he deploys his deceptive strength to gain deep positioning before letting his alwaysoneplayaheadedness take care of the rest. Does your team’s center even try to make plays this this?

Back to Kory’s question. Sabonis is at his peak when he has quicker, stretchier and savvier players to run with. Using Cleaning the Glass once more, I was able to discern that some of the best Pacers lineups come with Sabonis playing small ball center.

Turner and Sabonis often share the court together (both starters) but Indiana truly benefits when Sabonis is the lone big. The rotations below are all with Sabonis on the court and Turner off. Most of them come with spacers like the Holiday gang and Dougie McDermott.

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Look at all that orange! The Pacers are performing well in Pts/Poss and eFG% while not turning the ball over. A more expansive look shows that these lineups struggle in the midrange yet, they find average results at the rim and are usually lethal from deep.

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In a league prioritizing close 2-pointers a barrage of triples, these rotations could be the best Indiana musters. The continued return of Victor Oladipo should boost the at-rim numbers, too. Regardless, sending out Sabonis at center and surrounding him with athletic cutters and adept shooters is the key to maximizing his talent as a passer and overall player.

What’s the catch, Espo? Sabonis is nowhere near the rim protector that former block champion Myles Turner is. Historically, Sabonis has ranked towards the bottom of the NBA in opponent field goal percentage when shooting at the rim. In fact, in 2017-18 when he played 81 percent of his minutes at the 5, Domantas finished in the 9th percentile in this category. Although there has been some growth this year, it could be due to him spending less time than ever as a small ball big.

Indiana struggles offensively when Sabonis and Turner share the court together. This comes as no secret to Pacers faithful, although there is hope that a healthy Oladipo could remedy this. But if we are strictly focusing on routes Sabonis can take to reach his full potential, we have to discuss trades and personnel changes.

Fortunately for Domantas, modern executives have targeted lengthy forwards as outside-of-the-box means to protect the rim when traditional bigs cannot. Case in point: Draymond Green, Jerami Grant, and most recently, Houston’s combo of Robert Covington and PJ Tucker.

I know a certain Mr. Kory who would rather trade Sabonis than Turner, but the proof is in the pudding. Indiana’s mediocre offense needs an upgrade and the answer is on their team. The numbers back it up. Surely, their 7th overall defensive rating would take a significant dip with Domantas manning the paint. Is there a way to flip Turner into a rim protecting forward that can play alongside Sabonis?

If Houston’s “no center” experiment goes awry, which it likely will, then they could suddenly find themselves in need of a big. A Turner for RoCo and Danuel House trade works.

Indiana should consider targeting underrated paint deterrents like Maxi Kleber and Grant. Throw JaMychal Green in there too. They might need to bring in another team to make the cap work, but this could be the best way to let Sabonis do what he does best, and do it more often.

While Turner provides vertical spacing, his ability to stretch the floor with any meaningful volume is debatable. I’d rather have a four man combination of agile slashers and reliable shooters for Sabonis to create for. For this to happen, Sabonis needs the ability to defend opposing centers while simultaneously being free from rim protection duties. It is a remarkably tough challenge but, one that could transcend Sabonis from an All-Star to an All-NBA caliber player.

Published by Matt Esposito

Founder/Writer for and contributor to Red’s Army Twitter: @Mattesposito_

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