Once upon a time, NBA teams were deliberately built around dominant big men. From Wilt Chamberlain, to Bill Russell, to Shaquille O’Neal, a dominant center was viewed as the most important part of a championship-ready team. Today, however, teams are increasingly choosing to build around speedy guards and sharp-shooting wing players.
Yet other big men continue to dominate through their elite skillsets. One of those players is Indiana Pacers center Domantas Sabonis. Not only is Sabonis one of the greatest bigs in the game today, but his father was also one of the greatest European NBA players ever.
Here we take a closer look at Domantas Sabonis, his NBA career so far, as well as that of his Hall of Fame father Arvydas.
Domantas Sabonis’ career so far
Domantas Sabonis Jr. played two years of college ball for Gonzaga University, before declaring for the 2016 NBA draft. The Orlando Magic chose Sabonis with the 11th pick, only to promptly trade him to the Oklahoma City Thunder as part of their package for power forward Serge Ibaka. Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova also ended up going to the Thunder in that trade.
Sabonis showed plenty of promise during his rookie season, even starting 66 of the 81 games he played. In an average of 20.1 minutes per game, Sabonis put up 5.9 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.0 assist per game. While those numbers may not exactly jump off the page, most league analysts agreed that Sabonis possessed huge upside.
In July 2017, following the end of his first season, the Thunder traded Sabonis and Oladipo to the Indiana Pacers as part of the blockbuster Paul George trade. Now in his third year with the Pacers, Sabonis has steadily improved with each passing season.
He averaged 11.6 points in 2017-2018, 14.1 points in 2018-2019, and 18.4 points this year. This season he is also grabbing a career-high 12.5 rebounds per game, as well as dishing out 4.8 assists.
First NBA All-Star appearance
To put it mildly, Sabonis emerged this year as one of the most unstoppable big men in the game. He has a unique combination of power, finesse, and elite footwork. Those skills haven’t gone unnoticed. Sabonis was selected as a 2020 All-Star reserve by coaches around the league, playing on the winning team captained by LeBron James.
During All-Star weekend, Sabonis also took place in the Saturday night skills challenge. Coming into the challenge, the odds on Sabonis were worse than almost all of the other players. Yet he dominated the competition, making it all the way to the final round, where he finally lost to the ultimate winner, Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo.
Domantas Sabonis’ Hall of Fame father
As noted above, Domantas Sabonis is the son of Arvydas Sabonis, a 7’3″ center who played seven seasons with the Portland Trailblazers, and was ultimately inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame. The Trailblazers drafted Sabonis Sr. in the first round of the 1986 draft, although he would not play a single game in the NBA until 1995, at the age of 30.
During that 10 year span, Sabonis Sr. established himself as one of the best players in European basketball, twice winning European Player of the Year honors. In his seven NBA seasons, Sabonis Sr. averaged 12.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game. Had he spent his prime years in the NBA, rather than the European leagues, those numbers would surely be far greater.
Nonetheless, Sabonis Sr. is widely considered one of the best passing big men of all time. During his heyday, centers were not considered playmakers. Sabonis Sr. revolutionized the game in that regard. As one of the very first players to make the leap from Europe to the NBA, he also paved the path for countless international players in the decades to follow.