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Domantas Sabonis Can’t Miss

He’s not the stretch-4 the Thunder needed him to be or a maestro from the high post like his father. But Sabonis, like Victor Oladipo before him, has been reborn in Indiana as the player he was probably always meant to be—a hyperefficient reserve who can crush an opponent with a screen or a poster dunk.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Domantas Sabonis is not a complicated guy. Those who know the Indiana Pacers big man describe him as laid-back and easygoing, straightforward and unflashy. He doesn’t get bored with the menial tasks of basketball, like rebounding and screening, and he’s drawn to simple things on his free time, like trips to the ocean, playing beach volleyball, theme parks, and eating Italian food. He loves Italian food. Sabonis looks forward to the summertime, when he can treat himself to places like Bestia, a popular restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. There, Sabonis will splurge on his guilty pleasure, truffle pasta.

“That’s the fanciest thing he does,” said Riccardo Fois, Sabonis’s friend, personal basketball skills trainer, and the coordinator of analytics at Gonzaga, where Sabonis played in college. “I eat more truffle pasta when I’m with him than ever in my life ... and I’m Italian.”

Sabonis and Fois keep an informal list of their favorite Italian spots in L.A. (they dined at Felix Trattoria in Venice multiple times this summer). For the past two years, they’ve spent most of August in Los Angeles working out—sometimes three times a day. “Ricky and I probably try every Italian restaurant when we’re there,” Sabonis said.

By the time Sabonis twirled his fork around his favorite pasta, he’d already put in a full day of work in the gym at St. Monica Catholic High School—weight-lifting, a full-body workout, and court work. After the meal was done, he’d head back to a gym at UCLA to train again. The night session was a slower-paced one where he’d try to perfect the skills he worked on in the morning. Fois and Sabonis believe that every extra rep, shot, and ounce of spaghetti from their sessions contributed to a balanced but productive summer, one that’s helped Sabonis become one of the most efficient players in the NBA in just his third season.

Last season, Sabonis watched as Victor Oladipo, the other player traded from Oklahoma City to Indiana in exchange for Paul George in the summer of 2017, became an All-Star, an All-NBA team member, and the league’s Most Improved Player. Now it’s Sabonis’s turn to break through. The 22-year-old Lithuanian has developed into a double-double machine and a per-minute monster for a team that had won seven games in a row before a last-second loss to the Cavaliers on Tuesday. Despite the slipup, the Pacers are still making a compelling case for elite status in the top-heavy Eastern Conference, and Sabonis is a big reason.

“He is incredible,” Oladipo said recently. “His play and his numbers speak for themselves. That Most Improved Player award needs to stay in Indy.”

Pickup games featuring NBA players pop up all over Los Angeles in the summer, and last August, at the Lakers practice facility, Sabonis found himself in one that included the likes of Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac, and Rajon Rondo, as well as Kelly Olynyk (like Sabonis, a former Gonzaga player) and Devin Harris, among others. Sabonis’s attitude toward the friendly scrimmage took everyone by surprise, Fois said. They weren’t ready, and he dominated.

“There’s a handful of players that cannot play a casual pickup game,” Fois says. He puts Sabonis and Manu Ginobili in that category. “They cannot play a casual pickup game. They hate to look bad. So they play every pickup game like it’s the most important game of the year.”

The second time Sabonis showed up to the Lakers facility, LeBron James was there. “They were ready for him,” Fois said. “Zubac had gotten his ass kicked, so obviously he’s like, ‘Fuck this guy’ and Domas didn’t play good. So, he was mad afterwards. […] He came up to me and said, ‘We’re going to go work out now.’” Sabonis had to sweat out the frustration.

Sabonis is catching fewer players by surprise now, after his strong start to his third season, but Joel Embiid hadn’t gotten the message in time. In an early-November game in Indiana, the 76ers center tracked Sabonis coming off a short roll and tried to challenge his shot at the rim. It did not go well for the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up:

Fois says that it isn’t Sabonis’s finishing ability or subtle athleticism that surprises opponents. It’s his constant effort. “He’s going 100 percent in the 70th game of the year and he’s trying to kill you,” Fois said.

Sabonis owes that relentlessness to his upbringing. The son of legendary Lithuanian center Arvydas Sabonis, Domantas, or “Domas” for short, was born in Portland during his dad’s first season in the NBA, but moved to Malaga, Spain, at age 7. His time on Spain’s southern shore looked a lot like his summers now—full of basketball and the beach. Both were unavoidable, but only one was in his blood.

“From when I was young, I was always fixated on my dad,” Domantas told me in Spanish. “My dad was like a god to me. A guy at that height who could shoot, pass, do all of that, what is now in style in the NBA, he did it 20 years ago, so it was incredible.”

Arvydas was an original unicorn—a 7-foot-3, 279-pound center with the passing skills of a guard. Though he didn’t play in the NBA until later in his career, he is widely regarded as one of the best players of his generation. The shadow he cast was large, especially in Europe, where he spent his prime. But Domantas didn’t try to surpass his father or live up to him. He tried to find his own style, not replicate Arvydas’s.

Sabonis’s game does share some similarities with his father’s. The younger Sabonis is grabbing 19.3 percent of available rebounds, which is the sixth-most of any player in the league who plays at least 20 minutes a game. Pacers head coach Nate McMillan, who played against Arvydas when he was with the Seattle SuperSonics, said he also sees some hints of Arvydas in the way Sabonis thinks about the game.

Sabonis’s game is all about movement and positioning. He is a linchpin for the Pacers not because he is a go-to scorer or a ball handler, but because of his unique ability to cut through a defense without the ball in his hands like an X-Acto knife. There’s beauty in the simplicity of his role in Indiana’s attack. He constantly swings from one side of the court to the other, like a 6-foot-11, 240-pound pendulum, and darts toward defenders in the high post or above the break, ready to send them recoiling back with brick-like screens. He is not necessarily fast, but the Pacers play at the league’s 26th-fastest pace; he only needs to be strong and quick. Getting into a pick-and-roll or an off-ball screen half a second faster than a defender can react may be the difference between a stalled possession and a basket.

“The role he has in Indiana right now is the role he was meant to play,” Olynyk said. “I think OKC drafted him and put him in a role he wasn’t accustomed to.” In Oklahoma City, Sabonis was called upon to stretch the floor in a Russell Westbrook–centric offense. It wasn’t his strong suit; he took a third of his (six whole) shots from 3 and averaged 32 percent there. With the Pacers, he’s been allowed to play inside-out. “I don’t think they were utilizing him in a way that maximized his potential,” Olynyk added. “So I think Indiana has been a great system for him.”

When the ball does find Sabonis’s hands away from the basket, his first instinct isn’t to hoist it up—his head often remains parallel to the basket instead of facing toward it, and so he looks toward the wings or the baseline to see where the next pass or handoff is coming. A shot is the last recourse. Ball movement is a priority. If he decides to attack the basket, though, Sabonis has the uncanny ability to deceive a defender. A drive that may, for other players, finish in a tough layup attempt turns into a hard jump-stop, a half-spin, and a hook shot for Sabonis. By the time the opposing big comes around to contest, it’s too late. Sabonis has the perfect mix of patience, precise footwork, strength, and shot fakes to get what he wants—and most of the time, he gets what he wants.

Of players who take at least five shots per game in the restricted area this season, Sabonis ranks sixth in field goal percentage (72.8). Of players who play at least 20 minutes a game this season, Sabonis ranks fourth in true shooting percentage (67.0), behind only Rudy Gobert, Steph Curry, and Pascal Siakam, and fifth in effective field goal percentage (63.7). No wonder Sabonis winces every time he misses a shot, even during his pregame warm-up. Failure, when it comes to scoring, is not exactly familiar. Sabonis’s elite-level efficiency is mostly a by-product of his shot selection, which he continues to refine. This season, he’s taking more shots inside of 10 feet, and fewer shots from outside of 10 feet. His 3-point attempts are down to a minuscule 0.2 a game. He is playing with the knowledge that every one of his nine attempts per game has to be a high-efficiency shot.

It makes you wonder whether Sabonis could continue this type of production, expand upon it even, should his usage and bench role increase. This season, Sabonis is averaging 24.7 minutes game, an insignificant uptick from his sophomore season. Fois believes they’ve trained in a way that would allow Sabonis to maintain his effective output even if he was asked to play 30 minutes a game or more. Imagine if he did; per-36 minutes, he’s averaging 20.6 points, 14.4 rebounds, and 4.5 assists. Sabonis would love to play more, but he seems to value what comes with having an important, specialized role, especially on a team that is thriving.

“Players respect me now, players depend on me,” he said in Spanish. “My teammates, when the game is tough they tell me, ‘C’mon Domas, we need you,’ and I like that, I like taking that responsibility.”

Sabonis is out of breath. He’s just finished his warm-up shooting routine before a late-November game against the Los Angeles Lakers, and now he’s scurrying into one of the Staples Center tunnels as sweat drips off him. “Where’s the weight room?” His question to an arena attendant stumbles out of his mouth in between heavy pants. It’s down the hall, past the home locker room. Sabonis beelines there less than an hour before tipoff.

The Pacers big man hits the weight room before every game, “activating” (Sabonis’s word) his core, hips, and glutes through stretching and working with what Fois calls “Tom Brady bands”—resistance bands used by the Patriots quarterback to help with pliability. If there’s one thing that Arvydas, who was plagued by lower-body injuries in his career, instilled in his son, it’s taking care of his body. His role also demands it. “Being able to be flexible and agile on the court helps, especially for a big,” Sabonis said. “Nowadays, everyone is going small, so for us to be able to guard smaller people, flexibility is a big advantage.”

“He’s in better shape than 90 percent of players on the floor now, but he’s an average NBA athlete I think is fair to say,” Fois said. “He’ll hate me for saying that, but he’s a guy who’s trying to maximize every little bit of athleticism that is in him, and one of the big things was move your feet, get lower to the ground so you can be more explosive, and really maximize that part of your game.”

How Sabonis did this included everything from sprinting on a treadmill with a 30-pound ball above his head to the famous pad drills with Pacers assistant Bill Bayno. Bayno, who visited Fois and Sabonis in L.A. this summer, is famous for using pads to hit players on their way to the rim in order to improve their finishing through contact. “He hits you as hard as he can,” Sabonis said, “but it translates to the game.”

If the regiment works, Sabonis will do it. His dedication to improving, along with an already-refined set of skills, is what Fois says makes him so easy to work with. Fois recalled how he once told Sabonis during his freshman season that taking up yoga might be good for him, and left it at that. The following season, Sabonis cut a free throw shooting session short during one practice, telling Fois that he had to go to yoga.

“Dom, since when do you do yoga?” Fois asked him.

“Oh, you told me last year I should do yoga,” Sabonis replied.

“And I’m like, ‘Fuck, I did,’” Fois says. “How many people you tell them, ‘Hey you really should work on your balance,’ and they go out and do it? This was not with the team, this was on his own.”

That work ethic has carried into the league. Sabonis was only 20 when he joined the Thunder as the 11th pick in the 2016 draft, but former OKC forward Nick Collison said Sabonis quickly impressed his teammates with his physicality, maturity, and energy. The big man trio of Collison, Steven Adams, and Enes Kanter became Sabonis’s older brothers—to the point where Adams and Kanter called him their “little brother,” and Collison referred to him as “my son.” After most shootarounds or practices, the foursome would do shooting drills followed by one-on-one matchups to work on post moves and post defending. It would get “very physical,” Collison said.

“We would just talk shit to each other and have fun,” Sabonis said. “Well, it was fun some days, but some days they would beat me badly.”

This was school for Sabonis, and he learned a different subject from each of his teachers. In Adams, he had a stout defender; in Kanter, a skilled post scorer; and in Collison, experience. Collison saw shades of himself in Sabonis. He also saw Sabonis’s confidence erode as he struggled while starting and attempting to space the floor as a rookie. But based on what was happening in practices, he could also envision a future where Sabonis thrived as a key player on a contending team.

“I know that it was really hard for [Thunder GM Sam Presti] to move him because they had him targeted for a long time,” said Collison, who retired last May after 14 seasons with the franchise. “He definitely wasn’t a throw-in in that trade. It hurt the Thunder to lose him a lot because he was definitely in the plan.”

Even if the role and timing of his OKC tenure was off, Sabonis and Fois believe it was formative. After the trade to Indiana, Sabonis took time off from the Lithuanian national team, choosing instead to start working out in L.A. with Fois to make the most of his new opportunity. “He felt like the NBA didn’t see the real Sabonis,” Fois said. “They didn’t see all the things he was capable of.”

In Oklahoma City, Sabonis was a starter in a ill-fitting role. In Indiana, he’s a reserve with the perfect role. But he has yet to have both, partly because of the Pacers’ depth in the frontcourt. They have put their money on Myles Turner (with a four-year, $72 million extension, to be exact), and the former 11th overall pick has come on as of late, averaging 18.6 points and eight rebounds in the past five games. But while Turner’s surge (and Thaddeus Young’s consistency) have relegated Sabonis to the bench, the two 22-year-old big men have developed a rapport. The two met up this summer in Dallas for workouts and hot yoga, knowing that if Indy wanted to play both of them at the same time, they needed to improve as a duo. “It was good for our chemistry,” Turner told me. “I think it’s a lot better than it was last season.” So far, their two-man combination is a minus-1.8 net rating, up from minus-9.9 last season.

Turner isn’t the only one feeding off of Sabonis. Sabonis’s chemistry with Indy’s guards, from Oladipo to Darren Collison and Cory Joseph, is palpable—their smooth two-man games produce some of the most aesthetically pleasing sequences for a team that isn’t exactly the 2014 Spurs or the Steph Curry–led Warriors. But what matters to Sabonis, and the rest of the Pacers, though, is that they win games. So far they have.

The Pacers have just lost to the Lakers without Oladipo, and Sabonis has two feet in a gray tub of ice, one white towel around his neck, and a red slash mark on his throat. “It’s from LeBron,” he says with a pained and proud smirk. “He put me in a pretzel.”

Sabonis will likely get a text soon from his dad with observations from the game. If Arvydas is awake to watch the games live in Lithuania, his postgame report usually turns into a phone call. Fois will talk to him, too. After a recent Pacers game against the Kings, Fois suggested that Sabonis should try to turn more of his long 2-point attempts into 3s. That’s the next step, one that Sabonis, who has picture-perfect shooting form, should be able to take without changing the blueprint that’s worked for him so far this season.

“He’s more of an inside player in his nature, it’s more who he is,” Nick Collison said, “and he’s figured out how to continue to be an inside player in this era and still be effective.”

Thirty-one games into the season, Sabonis is in three of the Pacers’ top-five most-used lineups; he average net rating of those lineups is 18.1. Overall, the Pacers have a 5.9 net rating when Sabonis is on the court. “It’s hard to keep him off the floor,” McMillan said.

The only thing that has kept Sabonis off the floor this season, aside from his bench role and a right knee bruise in October, is food. In his three seasons, Sabonis has missed only 11 games. The 11th came two weeks ago, when he caught food poisoning from room-service shrimp. The following night, against the Kings at home, a pale-looking Sabonis played after getting an IV of fluids. He had been in a similar situation before. Last season, Sabonis had a fever in a game against the Spurs; he went 9-for-9 from the field. In the win over the Kings, he finished with 14 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes, including a stretch of defensive stops and a thundering dunk on the other end that keyed a Pacers run.

After the game, Sabonis told reporters he hadn’t eaten much for 48 hours. The only thing he had been able to feed himself without much trouble? Noodles. They just didn’t have any truffles.

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