Though it's been almost a couple of months since he has signed, no player has been more fascinating this recruiting class than Domantas Sabonis, a power forward prospect from Lithuania. Sabonis comes with all kinds of fanfare already, as he is long, lanky athletic power forward who arrives to Gonzaga with an impressive basketball pedigree. Let's take a look at why Sabonis should be highly anticipated by Zag and WCC fans this upcoming season.
Solid International Experience
Sabonis has been a long-time product of the Lithuanian national basketball program, a major power in the FIBA universe. Remember, this is a country that has recently produced NBA players like Linas Kleiza, Donatas Montiejunas and Jonas Valanciunas. Additionally, as a national program, the Lithuanian team earned the silver medal in the 2013 FIBA EuroBasket tournament, and the bronze medal in the 2010 FIBA World Cup in Turkey. The fact that Sabonis is involved in such a international powerhouse program means that he has had the proper development in his younger years, especially in comparison to other national basketball programs, where coaching and development is a little more uneven.
As for his actual playing experience at the international level, Sabonis has excelled representing Lithuania on the court. He averaged 14.1 points per game 14.4 rebounds per game and 2.6 assists per game for Lithuania in the 2012 U-16 FIBA World Championship (the team finished 11th), and 14 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game for Lithuania in the 2013 U-18 FIBA World Championship (his rebounding mark was a high for any player in the tournament). In terms of international competition, not only has Sabonis faced some of the world's best young talent, he has displayed he can excel against the top international talent at his age level as well.
But, the international experience doesn't stop there, as like many international talent who end up playing in college in the United States, Sabonis played with a competitive international club last season (you can play for a club as long as you do not sign a professional contract; this is touchy since some try to test how much compensation they can receive, as was the case with Kentucky recruit Enes Kanter, who didn't sign a professional contract, but earned more money playing than allowable by the NCAA and lost his amateur status and didn't play a minute for the Wildcats). Last year, Sabonis played for Unicaja Malaga, one of the top Spanish teams in the ACB league (a league Ricky Rubio also played for before coming to the NBA) that also qualified for the Euroleague (basketball's answer to the Champions League in Soccer). While Sabonis did not play much (he played 10.5 minutes per game in ACB league action and 9.3 minutes in Euroleague play), he was one of the youngest players in the league in general (playing mostly as a 17-year-old) and earned rave reviews from coaches and players for his work ethic and development in his time with Unicaja Malaga. Watch the video below to see some interesting interviews with coaches and players about Sabonis (many interviews are in Spanish, but there are some English ones too).
Furthermore, one of the more endearing traits of international coaching and play is their willingness to "experiment" with young players in terms of positions. Unlike in the United States, where players are primarily placed at a position early on depending on their size and athleticism, Europe is known for having players play at multiple positions regardless of height or size. This has led to taller players displaying skills that is more expected of perimeter players (such as Dirk Nowitzki for example). It sounds like the coaching staff for Unicaja Malaga was willing to try Sabonis out in different positions to improve his development as an overall player, according to this report by Eurohopes, a Euroleague scouting site. Here is a quote from the writer of the report:
"After dominating European Championship U16 as a clear-cut up-front player, Unicaja’s coaching staff has decided to transfer him into tweener, so not surprisingly that in Rome Sabonis is seeing his playing time mostly at SF spot in Unicaja’s packed with sized lineup."
For Gonzaga, this bodes well considering that small forward may be a position of need for the Zags, and they should be in good shape in the post with center Przemek Karnowski returning, and Kentucky transfer power forward Kyle Wiltjer being eligible right away. It is certainly in the realm of possibility that Few could throw out a huge front line with Sabonis at the 3, Wiltjer at 4 and Karnowski at 5. Now, whether or not Few would employ such a lineup on a regular basis is to be determined, but from the report listed above, it seems like Sabonis has worked on playing at the small forward position in his time in Europe, and this should give him a chance to earn minutes and be an impact player immediately for the Zags.
Impressive Basketball Lineage and Skills
Another aspect that should entice Northwest WCC basketball fans is the fact that Sabonis is the son of Arvydas, the legendary Lithuanian player who dominated in his time with the Soviet Union basketball squad and carved out an impressive career with the Portland Trailblazers. While his son Domantas doesn't have the size of Arvydas (Sabonis was a bear literally speaking at 7-3 and 279 pounds) and it is to be determined if he has the overall skill prowess of his father (Arvydas would constantly dazzle fans with his soft shooting touch and excellent passing skills), he does come to the United States at a much younger age (Arvydas was 31 when he came to the NBA).
While some may not agree, basketball pedigree is an important trait that bodes well for player success. Having a father who played at a high level usually results in some of those skills and "instincts" being passed down to the younger generation. The Zags saw this with David Stockton, who while not physically gifted, inherited the excellent passing skills from his father and hall of famer John. Furthermore, the WCC has seen many talented players who came from NBA families carve out good careers at the college level including Luke Sikma of Portland (son of Jack who played for the Sonics), Austin Daye of Gonzaga (son of Darren who played for the Celtics) and Mychel Thompson of Pepperdine (son of Mychal Thompson who played for the Blazers and Lakers). While Sabonis will obviously have the help of the coaching staff to aid his development at Gonzaga in preparation for the next level, having his father's input most likely will also be key in terms of adjusting to life and basketball play in the United States.
But, while having a NBA father has some intrinsic value, it also is a good sign physically as well, as players usually inherit many of the physical gifts of their fathers. That seems to be the case with Sabonis, as he is a tall athletic player and has the same excellent footwork, rebounding skills and tenacity that was characteristic of his father. If you watch the video below, Sabonis finishes especially well at the rim, and is able to display a flurry of post moves and drives that constantly results in easy points. Furthermore, he is able to get rebounds at a good rate, and isn't pushed out easily by opposing players. If there was one quality that was endearing about Arvydas, it was his toughness, strength and tenacity in the paint that complemented his dazzling passing and ballhandling skills. While the strength isn't totally there yet, it seems like Domantas has the motor and the toughness to handle himself at the college level. As he continues to develop muscle strength and fill into his body, it is possible that he could garner the strength down the road as a player that could resemble similarly to his father. Check out the video below and see how Domantas as a 16-year-old held his own and then some in International competition for Lithuania.
What CCH Overall Thinks of Sabonis
There have been a lot of ballyhooed recruits that I have gotten excited about at Gonzaga. Daye came in with an impressive high school pedigree and lofty recruiting rankings. Karnowski was known for his international experience as well as his participation in the Nike Hoop Summit, which in my opinion, is the best high school showcase currently (I think its more competitive than the McDonald's All American Classic or Jordan Brand Classic). Kevin Pangos got on the map for holding his own against future Top-3 pick Andrew Wiggins in Canada. But Sabonis could possibly top all of them in my anticipation of him simply based on his physical skills, international experience and basketball pedigree. I can't remember a player from Gonzaga who had this much development at such a young age, and faced so much elite competition as well before they even set foot in Spokane. Yes, he hasn't gotten the hype that Daye or even current Top-50 recruit Josh Perkins received in the Recruiting media, but Sabonis probably went under the radar because I'm sure many didn't think he was going to college initially. I'm sure many felt that Sabonis would play for Unicaja Malaga for a couple of more years and then make the jump to the NBA like most international players. Instead, Gonzaga gets an interesting player who could potentially have an impact on an even more loaded squad next season.
And I'm not alone in this feeling. Here is what Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports said in a piece that mentioned that Domantas Sabonis will have an impact for the Zags next season:
"One person that watched Sabonis in the past said he would have been a McDonald's All-American had he played in the United States. Sabonis is only 17, but will be relied upon right off the bat for Mark Few and the Bulldogs."
As stated before, it will be interesting to see how Mark Few will utilize Sabonis considering that Karnowski and Wiltjer are more experienced at the college level and will be more established with Few's philosophy in comparison (Karnowski will be in his third year at Gonzaga and Wiltjer had a year in the program after sitting out due to transfer rules). But that being said, Sabonis has tremendous upside and potential, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him making a strong impact and making a name for himself in the college game in his first season with the Zags despite how loaded this Gonzaga team already is.