Remember back when Damian Lillard held the title of most underrated player in the NBA? Well, now in 2020 it’s ironically also a guy who shares a connection with the Portland area.
His name is Domantas Sabonis and he’s the best player you’ve never watched.
You’re probably wondering how a guy who plays for the Lithuanian National Team has a connection to the Portland area since he’s never played there and although Gonzaga – the college he went to–is in Spokane, that’s a bit of a reach.
Sabonis’ connection to Portland actually traces back to the 90’s and his father, Arvydas, probably the best player to not play his prime in the NBA. When the older Sabonis was finally allowed to come to the NBA thanks to the fall of the USSR, he played for Portland which went on to be the birthplace of his son Domantas.
Now, almost 24 years later, the younger Sabonis is showing the world the impact of a dynamic big man.
That is, he should be. However, much of the basketball world is taking its sweet time coming over to the Sabonis bandwagon.
Take NBA “expert” Nate Duncan. I’m going to wager a guess that like most of the basketball fans out there, Duncan hasn’t watched Sabonis play very much.
Sabonis’ game can be hard to appreciate if you just box score scout. If you delve into the film though, it becomes clear Sabonis is one of the league’s rising stars.
For starters, let’s look at the pick and roll. Sabonis currently leads the league in points per game as the roll man and here you can see why.
With the floor well-spaced, he sets a screen at the top of the arc and one pretty pocket pass from TJ McConnell later, it’s take off time.
What makes Sabonis different from the Clint Capela and Jarrett Allen’s of the world –good rim runners in their own right but never All-Star level– is what Sabonis does handling the basketball.
Much like fellow Euro Nikola Jokic, Sabonis has mastered the dribble hand-off.
Watch here as he and Doug McDermott run a two-man game to perfection that leaves the Wizards in complete defensive disarray.
Plays like this are possible because of the elite passing ability he has. He’s just the 10th player in NBA history to average five assists or more a game as a power forward or centre under the age of 24.
If you widen the search parameters to any age, averaging five assists as a big has been done just 38 different times in NBA history. Some names on the list include Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kevin Garnett and Jokic.
Let’s agree you’re pretty good if you’re on a list with guys like that. Especially since Jokic is the only one of those names to join Sabonis in the under 24 club.
Watch these clips here for some fun with Sabonis passing.
Part of why cutters have so much space around him is the attention that’s given to him in the post. He’s currently top ten in the NBA in points per possession on post ups and watching him it’s easy to see how.
On this play with Chris Boucher guarding him, he shows his underrated quickness with a spin down low to the basket.
That’s not even the best part to his post-game though. Being left-handed can often be a huge advantage as many defences simply aren’t used to forcing a player right. With Sabonis, leaving him on his left is a death sentence.
His lefty hook is one of the signature unstoppable moves in today’s game shown in the video below. Also shown is what happens when you cheat to the left, Sabonis clearly has the feel to know when to use a drop step to get to his right hand.
Sabonis’ game is a throwback with new age tendencies that every night is giving defences problems. The Pacers are currently 39-26 playing basically completely without former All-Star Victor Oladipo.
How they’ve been able to remain successful without Oladipo along with last year’s leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic –who left for Utah– is simple, Sabonis’ growth. Sure Malcolm Brogdon has been a key addition but, anyone who watches the Pacers knows which player is the key to their success.
I guess though that’s the problem, no one watches the NBA’s most underrated player and his Indiana Pacers.