Domantas Sabonis is being thrown into the fire in Oklahoma City. Few first-year players begin their NBA careers as starters, and even fewer do so on a team expecting to contend for a playoff spot. The Thunder are betting huge on their 20-year-old rookie, the youngest son of Arvydas Sabonis who spent two years at Gonzaga before being taken with the no. 11 pick in this year’s draft. He was one of three players they acquired from the Magic for Serge Ibaka, along with Ersan Ilyasova and Victor Oladipo. Most people expected Ilyasova to replace Ibaka in the starting lineup, but he lasted less than a month before being shipped off in a trade with Philadelphia. The Thunder don’t just need Sabonis to be good eventually. They need him to be good right now.
He is coming off one of his stronger games of the season, with eight points, three rebounds, and two assists on 4-of-5 shooting in Oklahoma City’s 105–103 win over Houston. On the whole, his numbers through the first 12 games of the season haven’t been bad, which is about all you can reasonably expect for a young player in his position:
Sabonis is one of only two players from the 2016 class, along with Pascal Siakam of Toronto, who has stepped into his team’s starting lineup immediately. Siakam received his opportunity after Jared Sullinger had surgery on his foot a few days before the season started, but going with Sabonis was always the Thunder’s plan. And the player OKC needs him to be in the NBA isn’t anything like the player he was in college.
Sabonis was coming off the bench for Gonzaga at the start of last season. A season-ending back injury to starting center Przemek Karnowski opened up playing time for Sabonis, who began putting up monstrous numbers once he moved into the starting lineup. Kyle Wiltjer, a 6-foot-10 spot-up shooter who is currently on a D-League assignment for the Rockets, was a perfect fit next to Sabonis, who had all the room in the world to work down in the paint. At 6-foot-11 and 240 pounds, Sabonis was too big and too strong for most college big men, and he wore them out in the post and on the offensive glass, averaging 17.6 points and 11.8 rebounds a game on 61.1 percent shooting. While a lot of his production came against lower-level players in the West Coast Conference, he also shined against high-level competition, dominating future lottery picks Marquese Chriss and Jakob Poeltl in one-on-one matchups.
Sabonis was a dominant college center, but he’s undersized for the position at the next level, and he doesn’t have the length or leaping ability to make up for it. With a wingspan of just 6-foot-10.5, his reach is significantly shorter than most NBA big men, making it more difficult for him to contest shots, secure loose balls, and score over the top of defenders in the lane the way he did in college. The Thunder addressed those issues by changing his position. Sabonis has gone from living in the paint to spending most of the game out on the perimeter. He took only 14 3s all season at Gonzaga; now, as a power forward in Oklahoma City, spacing the floor is one of his primary roles.
So far at least, Sabonis has been able to handle the transition. He is 15-for-33 from beyond the arc, where he is taking almost 45 percent of his shots. He almost has no choice but to take them; with Russell Westbrook attracting so much defensive attention whenever he drives the ball, the Oklahoma City offense requires someone who can be a release valve on the perimeter, and it’s not going to be Steven Adams or Andre Roberson. The Thunder badly need oxygen from Sabonis’s spot in the lineup, and they would have to move him to the bench if he stopped converting from long range.
What they still need to figure out is what other roles he can play on offense. Sabonis was a ball-dominant player in college, and he made a name for himself because he could score at will with his back to the basket, dominate the offensive glass, and pick apart a double team. The problem is that it’s hard for him to do any of that stuff when he’s standing in the corner 22 feet from the basket, nor is he going to get many opportunities with the ball in his hands playing next to Westbrook and Victor Oladipo. Maybe the best way to feature him more often early in his NBA career is to have him rolling to the rim. He’s an excellent passer with a good feel for the game, and he has the skills to either stop and take a 10-to-15-foot shot or make the correct pass if the defense collapses on him.
It hasn’t all been a smooth transition, though. Despite spending almost all of his time on the floor with Westbrook, he still has a net rating in the negative. Oklahoma City’s offensive rating is 0.6 points higher when he is off the floor, and the team’s defensive rating is 1.8 points lower when he is off it. Those wouldn’t be terrible numbers for a bench player, but Sabonis has played 229 of his 263 minutes this season with Westbrook, who has been almost single-handedly keeping the Thunder afloat. The Thunder have a net rating of plus-6.8 points when Westbrook is playing and a net rating of minus-21.3 points when he isn’t, and his minutes with Sabonis are a glaring exception to that pattern. Sabonis is one of only two players on their roster (along with Jerami Grant) who doesn’t have a positive net rating when paired with Westbrook.
The problems start on defense, which was always going to be an issue for a rookie changing positions in the NBA. If anything, it’s impressive that Sabonis hasn’t been worse on that side of the ball, given all that he has to learn. He’s quick on his feet, and he is already a solid positional defender, but his lack of length makes it difficult for him to contest shots without fouling, and he is averaging 4.9 fouls per 36 minutes of action. He’ll never be an elite defender, but he could become a solid cog in a system, especially since he has the foot speed to be a mobile defender who can hedge and passably switch screens. Dropping him back in the pick-and-roll will probably never be effective, since offensive players can shoot over the top of him. The problem is that being aggressive on defense without fouling is a hard balance for a young player to manage.
There’s a ton of room for Sabonis to develop as a player as he learns to adjust to the size and speed of the NBA game. If he can prove he’s a consistent outside shooter, opposing players will close out harder on him, giving him driving lanes to the rim. His lack of elite physical tools means he can’t really challenge NBA shot blockers, so he has to become better at scoring on floaters and using different release points when he gets into the paint. Like most young players, he also needs to improve his body to deal with NBA physicality, and his low rebounding percentage and foul rate are signs he’s getting pushed around a lot. But there is a good chance he adapts; where he separates himself from his peers is the mental side of the game. He almost never looks lost on the floor, and he rarely makes bad decisions. He has a positive assist-to-turnover ratio, and he’s comfortable making plays with the ball, so he could give the Thunder a lot more versatility on offense than Ibaka offered if Sabonis can secure a larger role.
The Thunder have a conflicting set of priorities with Sabonis. On one hand, they need a player with his skill set in their core. The theoretical version of what Sabonis could become, a scorer and facilitator from the high post who can defend on the perimeter, is a great fit with Adams and Enes Kanter. On the other, they have a superstar in the prime of his career, and they need to be competitive enough to keep him happy and to attract other elite players. There’s only so much room for development at this point in their life cycle, and they can’t afford to wait too long on anyone. Even when the Thunder were contending for titles over the last few years, they remained committed to developing young players, but now, without Kevin Durant and Ibaka, their margin for error is near nonexistent. With how the team is constructed now, the Thunder are going to have to sacrifice some of their upside this season to bring Sabonis along. They had better be right about the type of player Sabonis can become.