Domantas Sabonis: Future Celtic?

Years ago, I would notice an oil painting as I entered Staples Center in Los Angeles.  It depicted former Portland center Arvydas Sabonis battling the Lakers during the 2000 Western Conference Finals.  The Lithuanian began his NBA career at 31, after years in Europe. He still ended up in the Hall of Fame.

Sabonis’ son, Domantas, is a potential lottery pick.   He played a starring role for Gonzaga over the last two seasons and is a first-round selection even in the eyes of the most conservative experts.  The man nicknamed Domas has seen his stock rise recently, but the Celtics appear certain to draft him if given the opportunity.

Domantas was born in Portland during the 1996 NBA Playoffs.  However, he is considered a Lithuanian national and spent his formative years in Málaga, Spain.  Arvydas thought life there would be less pressure-packed than back home where he is a national hero.  The 6’10” Domantas played sparingly during the 2013-14 season with Unicaja Málaga, but he got to face seasoned professionals in the process.  The prior year, he was an important piece of the Rincon Málaga squad.  Sabonis speaks English and Spanish, plus enough Lithuanian to get away with cursing around most European referees.

It has been revealed that Sabonis will only perform workouts for the Raptors, Jazz, Suns, and Celtics.  Toronto is #9 in the draft order while Utah has the 12th selection, Phoenix selects 13th, and Boston picks 16th.  The Suns also possess the 28th pick, but Sabonis is unlikely to fall that far.  Despite never playing for Boston, Arvydas is a fan of the Celtics organization.  The team also employs former Gonzaga Bulldog Kelly Olynyk, who has become a mentor of sorts to Domantas.  The Celtics have just $27 million in salary committed for next season, but Olynyk will be returning to Boston barring a trade.

Domantas is a power forward who can rebound and score inside, which is valuable even in this era of small ball lineups.  In fact, he was the third most efficient scorer in all of Division I.  He also surprised some scouts during recent sessions by shooting well from distance which he rarely attempted in college.

Sabonis is also more athletic than one would expect from a player of his mold.  Like his father, Domantas can take on a playmaker role and make smart passes given the opportunity.  His well-honed post moves are a big reason why he gets to the charity stripe so often.  Even better, he hit 77% of his free throws as a sophomore.

Sabonis’ Euroleague experience helps explain why he was immediately effective after arriving on campus in Spokane, Washington.  The West Coast Conference isn’t known as a powerhouse, but it does feature strong rival programs in St. Mary’s and BYU.  Gonzaga also played a difficult non-conference schedule and Sabonis excelled against the tough competition.  He had a big game against Arizona, scoring 18 points and hauling in 16 boards with 4 of those coming on the offensive end.  Sabonis also helped the Bulldogs defeat Connecticut on Thanksgiving week in the Bahamas.

At times, Sabonis looked like a man among boys.  During a conference tournament game in Las Vegas, he cleaned the glass and scored, despite being surrounded by three opponents.  In a contest at San Francisco, he toyed with defenders who attempted to deny the entry pass.  When they were able to stay in front of him, he used an up-and-under move to score anyway.  Sabonis even showed creativity off the dribble when he took a Bryan Alberts bounce pass, faked out his man, and finished with a lay-in to delight a sellout home crowd.  Coach Mark Few had high praise: “Domantas is as impressive of a person and player as I’ve ever coached.  He has an insatiable desire to get better.”

Despite a disappointing start to the regular season, Gonzaga upset Seton Hall and Utah in the NCAA Tournament before falling in the Sweet 16.  Sabonis proved to be a driving force as he willed his way to the hoop and gave his team numerous second-chance opportunities.  He scored 19.6 per game to go with 14.3 boards in those games.  That improved upon his already terrific season averages of 17.6 points and 11.8 rebounds.  Sabonis hit 61% of field goals for the campaign and nearly 67% in his freshman year prior to seizing a larger role in the offense.  He doesn’t project as a major rim protector due to his wingspan but has good quickness and blocked about a shot per game in his final season.

While some draftees are chosen based on potential, teams know that Sabonis should be ready to contribute immediately at the NBA level.  That’s an appealing quality to a team like Boston which finished 48-34 last season and already has a legitimate star in Isaiah Thomas.  Sabonis would keep them focused on winning now instead of waiting for a project to develop.  He may not have the ceiling of a player like Dragan Bender, but Sabonis also is unlikely to be a bust.  The forward’s rebounding ability is tremendous and he’s far from raw with the ball in his hands.  Sabonis may need to get more comfortable taking long jumpers and will need to avoid the foul trouble which has sometimes plagued him.  Even so, he can make a team like the Celtics more formidable.


photo via llananba