(Cream of the Crop is a recurring series that zeroes-in on something super cool that hasn’t been talked about enough. And, yes, we realize that there is more than corn in Indiana, but this is Indy Cornrows and you have to let us live.)
Domantas Sabonis is making the most of every inch of his sculpted frame. While on the floor, the Lithuanian center has rebounded over 12 percent of Indiana’s misses — one of the best marks in the league among players averaging at least 20 minutes per game — and he’s gone 7-of-10 on putbacks.
But his work on the offensive glass is only partially responsible for the field day he’s had thus far around the basket. Feasting on hard screens, dives to the rim, drop-off passes, and post-ups, Indiana’s other 22-year-old center is one of only five players who have shot above 75 percent in the restricted area on at least 45 attempts.
That’s a tall man doing tall man things at an incredibly efficient rate without playing much above the rim or spreading the floor (see: scoring 30 points in 21 minutes against the New York Knicks without a single shot taken outside the paint, nor a miss).
Yet, even while firing on all cylinders, some of his most eye-popping moments over the first 10 games of the season have come on plays when he’s played big without being confined by his size, toggling with ease between judiciously handling the ball and exerting brute strength.
Attacking switches by attracting bodies
The Pacers are quick to hunt mismatches in the post, but what about when the ball-handler is Domantas Sabonis and the player stationed on the block is Cory Joseph being defended by Marc Gasol?
First, a little background information on how that peculiar switch came into being. Noticing that Jaren Jackson Jr.’s drop was about to be caught on the wrong side of the middle ball screen, Shelvin Mack forewent chasing Cory Joseph on the cut through in anticipation of needing to confront Victor Oladipo at the nail.
As it turned out, Oladipo rejected the screen and hit Sabonis with the pocket pass. Guarding Tyreke Evans on the right wing, Kyle Anderson has to play halfway between the slot and Myles Turner in the deep corner until Mack can rotate over, which means Gasol is left to tower over Joseph on the block.
None of this is lost on Sabonis, who immediately responds by putting the ball on the floor, knowing full-well that the Spanish colossus won’t be able to come trap the box AND get out to contest Joseph cutting to the opposite corner.
Splash, a three created by a center pulling another center away from a guard.
One more thing: What you just saw was a 6-foot-11 man casually crossing-up Jackson Jr. at the top of the key before delivering a one-handed pass off the dribble precisely into Joseph’s shooting pocket.
Besides looking really cool, those skills matter because they’re what prevented Sabonis from having to stop and gather the ball to make a chest pass, which likely would’ve afforded Gasol the opportunity to at least intimidate Joseph.
A similar scenario played out in Minnesota. With Anthony Tolliver having provided help on Darren Collison’s drive, Jeff Teague switched onto Sabonis on the dish with Jimmy Butler also coming in hot toward the ball from the weak side.
Before delving any further into how this particular play developed, though, it’s important to point out that Sabonis was basically allergic to turning over his left shoulder last season whether flashing middle or posting up on either block because he didn’t have confidence in finishing with his right hand.
Okay, back to regularly scheduled programming, here is Sabonis using a subtle shot fake to get Jeff Teague off balance before putting the ball on the floor with his WEAK HAND in order to pull Tolliver away from Collison, who he then set-up with a slick bounce pass.
This is not nothing.
Catch-and-go bully ball
That being said, his catch-and-go forays haven’t only been about creating for others.
On the occasions when he’s caught the ball at the top of the key off a ball reversal or as a trailer and he’s seen a tasty match-up he likes, Sabonis has basically transformed into a hungry shark looking to whet his appetite after smelling a waft of alluring blood.
Here, for example, he shows exactly zero desire to play with his food, not even taking a split-second to size up Gorgui Dieng before twisting and twirling his way into a turnaround hook shot.
Same thing goes for Kanter. With Doug McDermott
scurrying for safety clearing out, Sabonis drove outside the 3-point line into this roasting post-up.
Patiently greasing the gears of the offense
Because dribbling doesn’t send shock waves of fear shooting through his body, Sabonis is rarely rushed.
Consider this possession against the Grizzlies and recall that when opponents tried to overplay the Oladipo-Sabonis dribble hand-off last season, the latter would come ready and willing to thread backdoor passes to Indiana’s first-time All-Star, like so:
In the season opener, Tyreke Evans attempted to cut to the rim on the same action; however, likely due to the team still being somewhat in the get-to-know-you phase, Thaddeus Young was parked on the dunker’s spot like a roadblock.
Instead of panicking, however, Sabonis kept his dribble alive and watched and waited for Evans to screen for Young and then handed the ball-off to the lefty power forward to beat the slower big to the rim off the switch.
Or how about against San Antonio, when there similarly wasn’t space to squeeze the ball to Cory Joseph so he reversed course, motioned for Thad to cut through, pitched the ball to Evans, set a hard screen, and delivered the hammer.
The Lithuanian big man has only attempted 13 shots outside of eight feet and he’s averaging over two turnovers per game as a focal point off the bench with increased touches in fewer minutes, but he’s shown flashes of using his 6-foot-11, 240 pound body to play like a guard as well as a big.
It’s early and some regression in terms of his other-worldly field-goal percentage should probably be expected, but it is nonetheless becoming easier to see that he is his father’s son.