From the Courts

Domantas Sabonis proving NBA value on NCAA’s biggest stage

Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire

In case his strong regular season and stellar WCC tourney weren’t enough, Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis has showcased his NBA value during the Bulldogs’ run to the NCAA Sweet 16.

The 6’10” Lithuanian bruiser is no stranger to high-scoring outings and double-doubles (he has 21 of them so far this season). But Sabonis’ recent dominance against high-quality opponents in the Big Dance has helped bolster his season-long audition for the Association.

Despite his brilliant sophomore campaign, legitimate questions have surrounded draft value of Arvydas Sabonis’ son. Will below-average athleticism and short arms hamper his chances to carve out a role in the NBA? With 21 points and 16 rebounds against Seton Hall, followed by 19 and 10 in a much-anticipated matchup against Utah’s Jakob Poeltl, Sabonis continues to make the case that he’s skilled enough for any challenge.

While his huge night against the Pirates in Round 1 was impressive, Sabonis’ inside-out performance Saturday against the Utah Utes was particularly significant from a next-level perspective.

He pushed all the right buttons against the taller, athletically superior Poeltl. Sabonis proved that he can attack NBA-caliber big men with strength, footwork and a relentless nose for the rock en route to 8-of-12 shooting and four offensive rebounds. He timed his low-post pump fakes perfectly and used terrific angles to score against the Austrian 7-footer. Although he won’t thrive in isolation as an NBA power forward, Sabonis will exploit certain matchups and convert sporadic plays in space.

Equally notable was Sabonis’ perimeter game. He drilled a smattering of outside shots throughout the season, and he uncorked a few more Saturday. Whenever Poeltl backed off just enough or got on his heels, Sabonis made him pay with a well-timed jumper, including his fifth three-pointer of the season.

Sabonis’ shooting form is a bit rigid, and he should use his legs more in his delivery, but those mid-range tosses are no fluke. According to, two-point jumpers account for 40 percent of his offense, and he’s hitting 47 percent of those shots. Granted some of those two-point jumpers include short-range flip shots and runners, but it’s still an impressive mark.

A peek at Sabonis’ 2015-16 shot chart from reveals that he’s quite dependable from every spot except the right short corner:

That consistency makes him a viable threat  If opponents give Sabonis too much space on pick-and-pops or short rolls to the free-throw line, he’ll make them pay with a 12-18 footer.

Sabonis also dished three assists against Utah after doling out four against Seton Hall. He now has 10 games with three-plus assists, a superb number for a 6’10” rebounding big man. That kind of passing prowess enhances his offensive draft resume.

What you won’t find in the Sabonis’ highlights against Utah is his defensive impact.

Poeltl is in the 235-240 pound range, and he’s no slouch when it comes to battling for position. But he was physically dominated by Sabonis, who weighs roughly the same but plays a stronger brand of hoops and has an extra gear of tenacity. The Zags’ guardian made life difficult for the Utes’ star, pushing and steering him out of the paint before he even caught the ball. Consequently, Poeltl only earned five field-goal attempts and just five total points.

Sabonis won’t have his way with every NBA big man like he did Saturday. He’s not a leaper and has a 6’10.5″ wingspan, so there are power forwards and centers who are plenty athletic and dynamic enough to score on him. However, Sabonis’ muscle and toughness will help him hold his own and gain positional advantage against most of the league, even if they have longer arms.

And remember, his defense isn’t limited to low-post stoutness. Sabonis’ feet are just quick enough to offer respectable stoppage when he switches onto wings or guards. He covers ground and change directions fluidly for a big man.

What does all of it mean for Sabonis’ draft value and career trajectory? It means he can establish a substantial role in the  NBA even though he’s athletically underwhelming.

Don’t expect his gaudy rebounding numbers at Gonzaga to translate. But he’ll outwork nearly every opponent on the glass, on defense and as a supplementary offensive weapon. Thanks to his footwork, blossoming skills and tenacity, Sabonis is drawing comparisons to other “non-athletic” bigs. ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla likens him to Luis Scola, a high-quality forward in his prime.

If Sabonis continues his jump-shooting progress and keeps up his strong-yet-crafty attack on both ends, he could become a starter in the NBA. A forward who can score 10-15 points, grab 7-8 rebounds and bring defensive energy is more than worthy of late-lottery consideration in this year’s class.

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