Domantas Sabonis is Making a Strong Impact in an Extremely Different Role

Indiana Pacers center Domantas Sabonis (11) drives around Sacramento Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein (00) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017. The Pacers defeated the Kings 101-83. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Many referred to Domantas Sabonis as a “throw-in” for the Paul George trade, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. He has found a role with the Indiana Pacers that far better suits his skill-set as a player and has indeed thrived. Also, we haven’t seen him play much alongside Turner yet, which the team will look to change soon. It appears that they could be a good fit together and that could further amplify his impact.

The 21-year-old is currently averaging 13.0 points (62.2% FG, 25.0% 3P, 68.2% FT), 10.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.2 steals, 0.4 blocks, and 2.4 turnovers in 26.8 minutes per game. Among Indiana’s rotation players, he has the best net rating (6.1) and defensive rating (103.3) and the 2nd best offensive rating (109.4).

During his rookie season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Sabonis averaged only 5.9 points (39.9% FG, 32.1% 3P, 65.7% FT), 3.6 rebounds, 1.0 assist, 0.5 steals, 0.4 blocks, and 1.0 turnover in 20.1 minutes per game. As you can see, both his volume output and basic scoring efficiency numbers are significantly higher with the Pacers.

He has already shown significant improvement in his impact from a single-game perspective too.

  • Career Bests: Sabonis has already set single-game career highs in points (22), rebounds (16), and assists (6) this season.
  • Double-Doubles: Domantas already has more double-doubles (2017-18: 5, 2016-17: 2) this year than he did in 2016-17.
  • Scoring: He has more games with at least 15 points (2017-18: 6, 2016-17: 3) and has the same amount of games with 20 points (2017-18: 1, 2016-17: 1) this season compared to last year.
  • Rebounding: Sabonis already has more games with at least 10 rebounds (2017-18: 6, 2016-17: 2) than he did with the Thunder.
  • Facilitation: Domantas has more games with at least 5 assists (2017-18: 3, 2016-17: 1) this year than he did as a rookie.

Also, the only players who were 21-years-old or younger who averaged at least 13.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 2.0 assists since 1990 are Karl-Anthony Towns, Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Elton Brand, Antoine Walker, Tim Duncan, and Shaquille O’Neal. It is safe to say that he has taken care of business at a young age for the Pacers.

More Cohesive Offensive Fit with Indiana

The issue that Oklahoma City had with Sabonis was that their offense was terrible with him on the floor. The Thunder had just a 102.0 offensive rating with him on the court. Domantas generated 1.009 PPP (11th percentile) last season, and he is creating 1.371 PPP (89th percentile) so far during the 2017-18 season. There are many reasons why he has been a much better offensive player this season.

Sabonis has gone from being asked to be a high-volume stretch-four to being primarily a roll man in the pick-and-roll and an interior complementary offensive player. He no longer has to hang out on the perimeter to give Russell Westbrook spacing, who set the record for the highest single-season usage rate at 41.7%.

Before getting too in-depth about how he is scoring with the Pacers compared to his tendencies with the Thunder, the overview of his attempts in the half court is indeed telling. It comes down to the fact that he attempted a jump shot on nearly half of his offensive possessions in Oklahoma City while he has only attempted a jumper on almost a quarter of his possessions with Indiana.

Domantas has attempted shots around the basket (non-post-ups) 62.1% of the time this season and has been excellent (1.5 PPP, 94th percentile), which is hugely better and far more often than his rookie year. For reference, he only attempted a shot around the basket 34.7% of the time and had poor (0.868 PPP, 7th percentile) execution with Oklahoma City.

Another significant difference for Sabonis has been that while he has been below average (0.773 PPP, 23rd percentile) on jump shots this season, he has only attempted them 25.3% of the time. He was average (0.905 PPP, 47th percentile) last season on jumpers but he took them 48% of the time, and the frequency was the issue.

Sabonis has not only been more efficient on shot attempts from post-ups this season, and he has attempted them at a lower frequency. To quantify that, he is generating 1.111 points per possession as a post scorer this season and attempts these shots 10.3% of the time. Last season, he was below average (0.815 PPP, 18th percentile) on these shots and attempted them 15.7% of the time.

P&R Roll Man

The foundation of Sabonis’s offensive tendencies with the Pacers has been as a roll man in the pick-and-roll. He is currently averaging 6.7 points per game as a roll man, which ranks 2nd in the NBA behind only his teammate Myles Turner who is scoring 7.0 points per game in this part of the game.

While the volume of scoring from Domantas as a roll man in the pick-and-roll has been impressive, his efficiency has been very good (1.233 PPP, 70th percentile) and these plays have accounted for 44.4% of his overall offensive plays. Last season, he was just below average (0.859 PPP, 20th percentile) as a roll man and only did so on 21.7% of his plays.

It has been impressive to see how Domantas has been able to utilize his skills as a creator as a roll man and when he slips the pick. He has shown great patience and understanding of how to attack the interior defense with his pivot foot, jump stops, and ball fakes. He has been able to use his nuanced abilities as an interior scorer with the Pacers and wasn’t able to last season.

Rolls to Basket: Sabonis has seen severe growth in efficiency and usage on rolls to the basket this season. For reference, he has been very good (1.412 PPP, 76th percentile) on rolls to the basket and has done so 56.7% of the time this season. As a rookie, he was average (1.054 PPP, 33rd percentile) on rolls to the basket and only did them 28.9% of the time.

The situation that he has in Indiana has been significantly different on rolls to the basket. For most of the season, Sabonis has played at the center position with stretch-fours on the outside, which has provided him far more spacing to operate than he had with the Thunder. Also, he has a stretch-five in Myles Turner when he plays at the power forward spot too.

Pick and Pop: While he has been only below average (0.833 PPP, 30th percentile) in the pick-and-pop this year, he is only attempting them 30% of the time. The main problem with his previous role was that he was used in the pick-and-pop 62.5% of the time and his execution was just below average (0.75 PPP, 24th percentile) and was worse than it has been this season.

He has continued to struggle with no dribble jumpers out of the pick-and-pop, but the difference here is that he has been asked to do it far less this year than he was last season. I do believe that he has potential to be at least an average pop threat, but he’s just genuinely much better on rolls to the basket and as an interior offensive player in general.

Slips the Pick: The final component of his tendencies as a pick-and-roll screener has been when he slips the pick. This season he has created an impressive 1.375 points per possession while last year he was only average (1 PPP, 48th percentile) and created 0.375 fewer points per possession.

It has been a true benefit to Sabonis that he has been the focus of Indiana’s offense when he slips the pick and has sufficient space to operate upon the catch. The next step will be for Domantas to watch for basket cutters that are roaming the baseline because that is something that has been open and will continue to be once teams start focusing on stopping him.

Post-Ups 

There has been a decline from Sabonis so far as a post-up player in points per possession. He is currently producing at a below average (0.667 PPP, 18th percentile) rate on his overall post-up derived offense and these plays account for 16.9% of his possessions. He was also below average (0.778 PPP, 16th percentile) last season and these plays occurred 17.8% of the time.

When taking it a step further by separating strictly scoring and passing, his production as a scorer has improved from the post. Domantas has been average (0.765 PPP, 35th percentile) as a post scorer and has done so on 70.8% of his post-ups. He was poor (0.649 PPP, 11th percentile) as a post scorer with the Thunder and did so on 87% of his post-up sequences.

The main problem for Sabonis this year in the post has been his passing. He has passed on 29.2% of his post-ups, and 100% of them went to teammates in spot-up positioning, and he has generated only 0.429 points per possession. Last season, he made a pass on 13% of his post-ups, and the results were excellent (1.643 PPP, 96th percentile).

Sabonis has shown genuine craftiness in the post with effective application of counter moves. His scoring has been efficient with a 55.6% adjusted field goal percentage, but the problem here is that he has turned the ball over 25% of the time during his overall post-up derived offense but specifically 29.4% of the time during direct scoring attempts.

Sometimes he has tried too hard to make a play in the post and has pinned himself into unfavorable positions where a pass can’t be made, which has resulted in a turnover. I wouldn’t be too concerned about his turnovers yet because he is still getting acclimated to Indiana’s offense and is still getting used to playing alongside Myles Turner.

Cutting

Domantas has been a cutter for a higher percentage of his possessions and has been far more efficient on his cuts this season too. He has been average (1.188 PPP, 42nd percentile) on cuts this season and these sequences make up 11.9% of his offensive plays. Last season, he was poor (0.825 PPP, 3rd percentile) and cut during 9.6% of his offensive possessions.

The main difference here has been a role as a cutter that has more efficient tendencies naturally. With the Thunder, he was a flash cutter for 38.6% of his cuts and was poor (0.364 PPP, 1st percentile) when doing so. He has been used as a flash cutter for just 6.3% of his cuts with the Pacers and scored on the lone possession of this kind.

There has been growth from Sabonis as a basket cutter, but he still isn’t where he needs to be. He has been below average (1.333 PPP, 27th percentile) as a basket cutter this season and has made these type of cuts for 93.8% of his cutting plays this season. He was below average (1.088 PPP, 15th percentile) and was a basket cutter 59.6% of the time last season.

The Pacers haven’t forced Domantas to do anything as a cutter outside of what he does well, and that has helped him a lot. The Thunder used him far more as a flash cutter, and he was basically the worst player in the NBA on those plays. He is an excellent (1.5 PPP, 94th percentile) finisher around the basket (non-post-ups) and basket cuts have allowed him to utilize that trait.

Offensive Rebounding

Sabonis has shown severe growth has been as an offensive rebounder and as a finisher on putbacks. He is averaging 2.8 offensive rebounds this year as opposed to 0.6 offensive boards in 2016-17. Regarding per 100 possessions, he currently has an 11.7% offensive rebounding percentage this year compared to just a 3.1% offensive rebounding percentage last season.

Domantas has been far more efficient on his putback attempts. This season, he has been very good (1.312 PPP, 74th percentile) on putbacks while last season he was poor (0.5 PPP, 2nd percentile). He has attempted a putback on 11.9% of his possessions compared to 3.7% last season. Also, he is only 6 attempts away from matching his putback attempts from last year.

I found it interesting was the Sabonis was one of the absolute finishers on putbacks on short rebounds last season. For reference, he was poor (0.55 PPP, 1st percentile) and had 20 total putback possessions from shorts rebounding situations. Meanwhile, he has been very good (1.4 PPP, 81st percentile) on putbacks from short rebounds in 15 possessions this season.

A difference that I noticed in Domantas’s execution on putbacks this year compared to last season is patience. He would frequently try to just go up with a shot attempt, and most of the situations that he faced featured a heavily crowded paint. This season, he is timing his pursuit of rebounds better and has been more strategic with his shot attempts.

Passing

There have been more direct opportunities for Sabonis to create with the ball in his hands and he has created shots for his teammates at a substantially higher rate. He has a 19.8% usage rate and has created a 15.4% assist percentage with a 19.2% turnover percentage. With the Thunder, he had just a 15.4% usage rate and generated just a 7.2% assist percentage and a 14.0% turnover percentage. The next step for him will be to cut down on his turnovers.

So far this season, Domantas has shown that he understands how to make effective passes and has an unselfish skill-set. While he doesn’t throw a lot of finesse passes, he consistently makes the right plays whether he is trying to create with the ball in his hands or continuing the team’s ball movement by making the extra pass. I am confident he will cut down on his turnovers as he matures as a player and gets acclimated to having more opportunities with the ball.

Potential on Defense

Last season in Oklahoma City, they had a 101.9 defensive rating with him on the court, and that is within an ideal threshold. So far he has a 103.3 defensive rating and considering Indiana’s personnel, that is certainly within an acceptable range. He has also gone from allowing 0.926 PPP (42nd percentile) last year to 0.872 PPP (57th percentile) this season.

From what he has shown so far this season, it is definitely worth seeing if he can produce against modern power forwards with Myles Turner on the court. Domantas has thrived in the areas of defense that he would have to do the most as a power forward and having a rim protector like Turner should only amplify his success.

Defending P&R Ball Handler (Big Defender)

The area of defense that Sabonis has guarded the most so far this year has been against the ball handler in pick-and-rolls. He has been good (0.79 PPP, 53rd percentile) in this area and has defended these sequences 53% of the time. While he isn’t the most explosive of players, he has shown to have sufficient lateral quickness to be between the guard and the basket consistently.

I believe that his success when defending pick-and-roll ball handlers is sustainable. Domantas was average (0.874 PPP, 46th percentile) as a rookie and this was his most frequent defensive play type. Making the adjustment from being a center at Gonzaga to defending NBA pick-and-roll ball handlers as a power forward is an extreme change, and he handled it well.

Again, I believe that Sabonis would benefit by having a rim protector like Myles Turner alongside him when he is guarding ball handlers in the pick-and-roll. I noticed a lot of plays where his teammates don’t make an impact in help defense. Having a paint protector would help promote positioning by Domantas that encourages the guard to settle in mid-range.

Defending Post-Up

The only area of defense where Domantas hasn’t been successful to start the season has been against post-ups. His production has been poor (1.261 PPP, 8th percentile) and these plays occurred 19.7% of the time. Of course, he has been forced to guard centers, and he has been bullied down low and has given up deep positioning.

I do believe that he has to continue to get stronger because he has had similar issues with handling bigger opponents in the post as a rookie. Sabonis was below average (1 PPP, 25th percentile) last season with the Thunder when defending post-ups and did so 10.1% of the time. I frequently saw him getting overpowered by centers, but he did hold his own against power forwards.

A pattern you have probably noticed in the observations is that Domantas Sabonis would be better equipped at guarding power forwards in the post instead of facing centers. Also, having a paint protector like Myles Turner that can send help against teams with non-stretch-fives would allow for Sabonis to use strategic positioning when defending the post.

Defending Spot Up

An interesting sign to me that Sabonis can handle the defensive tasks that are associated with the modern demands of the power forward position is that he has genuinely thrived against spot-up plays. For reference, he has been excellent (0.714 PPP, 84th percentile) against spot-up plays and has done so 12% of the time. While he isn’t the most explosive of players, he has been able been impactful at contesting shots whenever he hasn’t had to run out from the block.

Last season, his production was below average (1.09 PPP, 27th percentile) when defending spot-up plays and he was tasked with these situations 25.9% of the time. I noticed some truly bad habits and execution from Sabonis in these situations when he was on the Thunder. He would use flat-footed closeouts, he would roam far too away off the ball from his man, and his angles when containing dribble penetration were too rounded off.

I do believe that Domantas has improved as a defender when defending spot-up situations. He has been more methodical on closeouts and has taken sharper angles when containing dribble penetration, which has made him harder to get past. Also, he hasn’t been rooming too far away from his man, and that has allowed him to be in a position to make impactful closeouts on no dribble jumpers on a more consistent basis.

Defending Isolation

Despite being frequently outmatched in size against his matchups, Domantas has been good (0.909 PPP, 51st percentile) against isolation plays and has defended them 9.4% of the time. He has shown an ability to stay in front of players who are trying to create off the dribble from mid-range while frequently forcing them to settle for bad shots. However, he has been overpowered by larger centers at times, though.

Sabonis showed that he could handle cross-match isolation assignments off of switches last season. For reference, he was good (0.843 PPP, 64th percentile) when defending isolation and did so for 13.8% of his defensive possessions as a rookie. He displayed discipline when defending guards and small forwards out on the perimeter while moving his feet well to contain them consistently.

The next step for Sabonis as an isolation defender is to avoid being tasked against offensively proficient centers. He can handle most power forwards and can do at least a stable job against cross-match assignments out on the perimeter, but he will likely continue to be poor against centers until he gets stronger. His isolation defense would be at its best at the power forward position with a rim protector like Turner at the center spot.

Defending P&R Roll Man

The only other play type that Sabonis has defended more than 5.0% of the time has been against the roll man in the pick-and-roll, and he has allowed only 0.667 points per possession. He has done a stable job of not leaving the ball handler while still being in a close enough proximity to recover on the roll man. While he isn’t the most explosive of athletes, he takes proper angles and makes decisions with appropriate timing to make an impact as a defender.

Domantas was very good (0.827 PPP, 68th percentile) last season when defending the roll man in the pick-and-roll and did so 12.6% of the time. I noticed that he had great recognition of when to leave the ball handler to return to his man, especially on pick-and-pop sequences. Also, he angled himself well to promote the opposition into settling for bad shots instead of giving them favorable paths to the basket.

I would certainly prefer to have Domantas Sabonis guarding power forwards in the pick-and-roll while allowing Myles Turner to protect the paint. While he may not be dominant in defending the perimeter, he is fundamentally sound, and Turner’s paint protection could help him. He showed good signs of potential in this area of defense with the Thunder and the Pacers would be wise to utilize it.

Defensive Rebounding

Also, Domantas has made significant strides as a defensive rebounder, and he could solidify Indiana’s rebounding when he is on the floor with Myles. He is currently averaging an impressive 7.4 defensive rebounds, and that translates to an excellent 29.8% defensive rebounding percentage. For reference, he averaged only 3.0 defensive rebounds with just a 16.4% defensive rebounding percentage last season.

Of course, a decent portion of those rebounds has occurred because he’s been playing at the center position for a significant part of his minutes so far this season. However, it still shows his potential as a defensive rebounder nonetheless. Also, that should only help solidify the notion that he could solidify a unit’s rebounding alongside another big man. What that brings to mind is that Turner could benefit from having a big man that is a better rebounder alongside him.

Bottom Line

Domantas Sabonis has made significant strides as an offensive player this season because the role that he has been given has been far better suited for his skill-set. He has gone from being asked to be a high-volume stretch-four to being an interior oriented center, which properly suites his skill-set. Also, there is real potential for a Turner-Sabonis frontcourt because both players have in-and-out potential, but Sabonis can primarily utilize his interior offensive skills while Turner mostly puts his complementary abilities and floor spacing capabilities to use.

Also, the defensive traits that Sabonis has shown could be a good fit alongside Turner. While the Pacers wouldn’t be getting a lockdown defender at the power forward spot, I do believe that he is suitable and the offensive and rebounding impact that he makes would make up for it. Of course, there could be some lineups that they face that have too much speed with small forwards at the power forward spot, but that’s when using different personnel is appropriate.

About Grant Afseth 249 Articles
Grant Afseth is the lead Indiana Pacers writer for and founder of Indiana Sports Coverage.

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