In his 14th season as a professional in the NBA, Al Jefferson has seen two types of young players come across his way.
There are the ones who have the potential to become great, and there are those who have the intangibles of the game ingrained into their mind. In the case of his Indiana Pacers teammate Domantas Sabonis, it’s the latter.
“Got a very high IQ,” Jefferson told Basketball Insiders of the sophomore big man. “Just needs sometimes to be pointed in the right direction and kinda polished a little bit. That’s what I’d seen with him when he first got here. I said, man this kid is very smart, got a lot of upside and could play right now, be effective right now.”
The veteran center’s assumption turned out to be true. Sabonis has absolutely thrived under Nate McMillan in Indiana in his second season. As he’s gotten more opportunities in a game to be a difference maker, it’s safe to say things have turned out well, both for him and Indiana.
“He’s playing basketball,” McMillan said of the success at the beginning of the season. “He makes his teammates better. He does a good job of really initiating our offense with his ball movement. He’s taking high percentage shots. Defensively, he’s done a nice job of really adjusting for starting and coming off the bench.”
With the way Sabonis has been depended on for the majority of this season, it’s safe to assume that his up-and-down rookie campaign in Oklahoma City was an aberration.
No longer is he outside on the perimeter waiting to receive the ball as a catch shooter. Instead, he’s being utilized as a ball-handler with an all-around effect on the game. Over the summer, he focused on improving a number of things.
He hit the weights to bulk up. He worked on his control with the rock in his hands. He even put in extra work with his post moves and jump shot. And judging from the vast upgrades we’re seeing this year, it’s paying dividends.
“I feel like this year I’m feeling better on the court,” Sabonis told Basketball Insiders. “Last year, it was a different kind of role I had. This year it’s a different situation. I’m being used differently and I’m just trying to take advantage of the situation.
“I’ve been playing that role, the five-man, basically almost my whole career. I feel like that’s where I can do more—get the ball on the short roll, look to make plays, be a point forward. I feel like that’s the way I like to play.”
Of course, it would be a different story if McMillan didn’t believe in the Lithuanian big man’s talents, and that’s something he’s very grateful for.
“He’s helped a lot,” Sabonis told Basketball Insiders. “Since day one since I got traded, I came here first workout he wanted me to be more selfish, no hesitation. If I’m open, shoot it. Don’t worry. I don’t think he’s ever told me not to shoot it yet, so putting that trust and that confidence into me I think has helped me a lot.”
His coach isn’t the only figure who’s helped him this year.
Sabonis’ father, Arvydas, played 14 seasons between the NBA and Europe as a well-respected player who made his mark as a post presence on both ends of the floor. Revered for his tenure with the Portland Trail Blazers, the 53-year-old is in his son’s ear constantly after games.
“’I’ve always had him,” Domas told Basketball Insiders. “My whole career my dad’s been helping me, talking to me after games. He watches most of the games on league pass. Most of the time he just tells me to be more aggressive, try new things out, don’t be afraid. It’s just awesome having him there.”
Don’t start making comparisons between the two, though.
“I’m myself,” Sabonis told Basketball Insiders. “I’m a completely different player. He would say I am too. I’m just trying to make up my own name and if I can pick anything that he did well, well it’s better for me.”
All of this talk about his improvements is something special, but Sabonis really went to bat for his teammate who came to Indianapolis with him in the blockbuster Paul George trade in the offseason, Victor Oladipo.
Similar to his situation, Sabonis believes the first-time All-Star’s usage has played a huge part in his break out season.
“He’s our first option for scoring,” Sabonis told Basketball Insiders. “He’s the leading scorer. That’s who we look for. Everybody works to get him open to help get him really good shots and he’s taking advantage of it and knocking them down.
“His confidence has always been there. Even last year, he’s been like that always, hasn’t changed one bit. I just think he has a bigger role. He’s taking advantage of it. There’s more trust in him and he’s just playing his game. I think just both of us just getting a bigger role on the team helped us gain our confidence. Just stay aggressive and just show everyone that we can play.”
Along with Pacers third-year center Myles Turner, the two have created a nice one-two punch in the frontcourt. They don’t play all that often together (199 minutes total) because of some similarities in their games, but when each is on the floor with their own units to work with, it’s a difficult dynamic for opposing teams to stop.
The 21-year-old has seen plenty of starting time with Turner out due to injuries here and there, but now he’s back in that backup slot since he’s returned. But for Sabonis, it doesn’t matter what group of guys he plays with as long as it’s best for the team and it results in wins.
“I think it’s great,” Sabonis told Basketball Insiders of the staggering with Turner. “He comes out of the starting lineup. He does what he’s been doing his whole career. He’s one of the most talented big men in the league and he does his thing.
“And then as for the second unit, I just come in and try to do my job, just be aggressive. Try and keep that momentum up so there’s no slippage or nothing and I think it works great.”
As of Monday, Indiana stands in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with a 32-25 record. The commitment on both ends really showed in the month of January with the sixth-best defensive rating (104.2) and net rating (5) in the league.
“We’ve really improved our defensive intensity, which is leading to easier offense for us, transition points, and then that just gets us going overall,” Sabonis told Basketball Insiders. ““We just gotta keep improving every day.”
Still, there is plenty of work to do for the Pacers according to Sabonis. It starts with better team spacing and sustaining their level of play on a nightly basis.
“We’re gonna come in—defensively, offensively, there’s little details on the court that you’ve just got to execute,” Sabonis told Basketball Insiders. “I think like coach says, it’s more stamina just to like do it for 48 minutes. Not just do it for a quarter or for 20 minutes. Just gotta keep the same intensity for 48 minutes and I think that’s the biggest key for us now.”
Approaching the All-Star break, 32 total wins didn’t even cross most people’s minds when the George trade went down and sent Indiana into a rebuild. The fact that they’re in the hunt for the playoffs says a lot about the confidence of this group, and Sabonis knows it’s pretty darn special.
“Coming into the season, all of us knew if we worked hard every day it could be a special team and at least put [ourselves] in position at the end of games to win games,” Sabonis told Basketball Insiders. “And I think every day we come in, we try to get better, and we’re trying to win one game at a time.”
It’s easy to admit most of us were guilty of being wrong, and as a fan of basketball, it’s turned out to be great to watch the situation develop.
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