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NBA AM: The Value of Sabonis’ Euro Seasoning

When Americans show basketball promise, they go through AAU. But that wasn’t how Domantas Sabonis made his way.

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When Arvydas Sabonis finally made his NBA debut in 1995 at the age of 31 years old, he was at the time the oldest rookie in NBA history. Built like the 31-year-old he was, he made an immediate impact on the league, but he was just 16 when he started playing professionally in Lithuania. Five years later he was drafted to play in the NBA.

He didn’t come over immediately, obviously. Portland made him the 24th overall selection of the 1986 NBA Draft, but it took him nine years to find his way to the league, giving him plenty of overseas seasoning and physical maturity that obviously prepared him to make a significant immediate impact in the NBA. Whatever he did here, though, it was nothing compared to his successes in Lithuania and Spain. For those accomplishments, he remains one of the best European players of all time.

His son, Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis, will never be one of the best European players of all time because he’s never played professionally in Europe. He could have, but he chose instead to attend American University as a means of pursuing a dream to play in the NBA. He has, of course, done that, and a heck of a lot more quickly than his father did.

“For European kids now, the kids’ favorite teams are probably different from when I was younger,” Sabonis told Basketball Insiders. “Now it’s probably Golden State and Cleveland, when but I was there it was the Lakers and the Celtics. Those were the two teams everybody loved. Even if you didn’t know about basketball, everyone knew about the Lakers and Boston. The Bulls too, and I obviously knew a lot about the Blazers.”

Sabonis has dual Lithuanian/American citizenship, which changed the way he saw his own future in the NBA. Despite being born here, Sabonis spent a lot of his formative years in Europe, and unlike American kids who go through the AAU system to hone their skills, he instead found himself playing for the lower-level teams of local Lithuanian clubs. He credits those experiences to his rapid maturity through college and his first couple of seasons in the NBA.

“In Europe it’s a bit different for kids that show promise in the game of basketball at a young age than it is here in America,” he said. “Imagine if every NBA team had their own club for young players, and each age group plays. You play until you’re 18, and then you sign a contract with the NBA team or not. I think it’s a better way to do it because it’s more of a competition. And a lot of times, you’re playing against older players. I was always put in leagues playing against older guys, even men, so I was 16 years old playing in the 2nd Division. When you do it that way, you start playing against real men earlier in your career, which helps you mature as a player more quickly.”

Of course, there comes a time when a hot European prospect can opt to play professionally as a way of showcasing their skills en route to the NBA, which is how we got Ricky Rubio and Kristaps Porzingis and Nicolas Batum, and it’s how we’ll soon get Luka Doncic.

Sabonis opted to just attend college instead, which also is a perfectly acceptable route to the league, and it was one he was exponentially more excited to pursue.

“I never signed a contract in Europe. I didn’t want to,” he said. “I lived there, so that’s where I was playing. At that age, if you live in the place, in the place where the club is, you would play for free. Locals that young never get paid. It’s a totally different system.

“When you’re old enough you can sign if you want, but I just didn’t see the point. You’re going to sign, and they might give you $100 a month. You’re too young, and you still have so much future ahead of you. Plus, I wanted to play in college. I watched a lot of college basketball, and ever since I was 16, Gonzaga had been recruiting me. I got really into it, and I fell in love with the atmosphere, just everything about it. I wanted to get an education, and I just really wanted to get the whole American college experience.”

He got about half of the college experience, technically, playing two years at Gonzaga, but that was enough to make him a lottery pick and put him on a much quicker route to NBA success than his father took.

“If I would have stayed in Europe and then come to the NBA instead of going to college, my first year in the NBA would have been my first real true year away from my family in a different country. Instead, I had two years of experience with that, and I got to get used to America, adapt, be by myself. I loved college. I loved every second of it.”

Now, he’s loving every second in Indiana, where he’s broken out as one of the team’s key players, averaging 12.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game with a .586 true shooting percentage. He’s only playing about five minutes more per game than his rookie campaign in Oklahoma City. He was a key cog in the Paul George trade, and he already looks better than anybody could have expected.

“Indiana has been awesome,” he said. “It’s been a warm welcome since the first day I got here. It’s been very fun with a great group of guys who work well together, and we’re having a lot of fun this year.”

It’s a great start to what could be a long career with the Pacers. Sabonis is only 21 years old, which is how old his father was when Portland drafted him.

It took Arvydas another nine years to get his NBA career started, so it’s safe to say the younger Sabonis has quite the head start.

He won’t be a European star, but his career path always was going to take him here, so perhaps it’s American stardom that awaits him instead.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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