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Developing Domantas Sabonis into the next Al Horford

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Sabonis got a taste of All-Star weekend, but he needs to keep getting better in order to get invited back in the future.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers
 Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis (11) is guarded by Boston Celtics forward Al Horford (42) during the 4th quarter at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Credit: Brian Spurlock
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

All-star weekend presents a unique opportunity to compare the league’s top 25-30 players to the younger emerging stars who will eventually take their place. After watching both the rising star and All-Star games a comparison became evident: Domantas Sabonis’ best chance of playing another All-Star weekend is to become the Al Horford of 2020.

Horford was probably the last Eastern conference player picked to be an all-star (not including injury replacements) and on top of that he was the second last pick in the all-star draft.

He might not have impressive stats (12.9 ppg and 7.6 rpg), but Horford is an all-star because the Celtics are +4.4 when he’s on the floor and -0.2 when’s he’s off.

Horford does the little things right. That may not make him one of the NBA’s top 20 players but he’s certainly in the top 30. One of his biggest strengths this season is his ability to fit seamlessly with Kyrie Irving, allowing them to set up one of the league’s best pick ‘n’ rolls.

Watch Horford on this push screen - he moves Durant just enough to give Irving the one-step advantage.

Then he’s able to separate himself from David West just enough to get open thanks to some almost effortless footwork.

Watch Horford’s left leg as he separates.

Then it’s just an easy jump shot.

Horford is averaging three pick ‘n’ rolls per game but he’s averaging 1.16 points per possession. Sabonis is second in the league in attempted pick ‘n’ rolls averaging 5.2 per game but is only averaging 1.0 points.

Horford has an advantage over Sabonis because he’s a better three-point shooter (43 percent on the season). Sabonis just isn’t a three-point threat (only 29 attempts on the season) but makes up for it with his speed, which he relies on during pick ‘n’ rolls.

These sequences show the advantages both players have over their defender's thanks to their footwork. But unlike Sabonis, Horford can create his own offense off the dribble because he doesn’t always need assistance to set up his shot.

Sabonis doesn’t have a strong isolation game and relies on other Pacer players to find him in the right spots. An Indiana player has gotten credit for an assist on 72 percent of his shots.

Horford isn’t as reliant on the pass this season: Boston players have assisted on just 58 percent of his shots. Only recently has he developed into a better isolation player; just two seasons ago Atlanta players got credit for assists on Horford’s shots 78 percent of the time.

But playstyle isn’t the only thing that links the two big men.

All-star weekend is the time for players to show off their best moves, shoot every time they get the ball and basically slack off on defense (including boxing out). Yet Sabonis finished the rising stars game with 11 rebounds and took just six shots.

Horford only played 13 minutes in the All-Star game but that was enough for him to rack up five rebounds and two assists.

It’s also no coincidence that both Horford and Sabonis finished their respective games with single-digit shot attempts. Neither player is flashy nor cares about their box score. That’s one of the reasons Sabonis fits so well with Lance “rebound-stealing” Stephenson.

The most successful season of Horford’s career came in 2014-2015 when he led Atlanta to 60 wins. That year’s team is a perfect comparison for what Indiana could be by 2020.

Just like the Pacers, the Hawks relied on spacing the floor with good shooters to create a top-six offense. Victor Oladipo is a better version of Jeff Teague at guard, and Sabonis and Myles Turner could be just as lethal on offense as Horford and Paul Millsap.

The Pacers have the roster to copy Atlanta but they still need to develop chemistry. The Hawks were an eight seed in the playoffs for 2013-2014, just one season before they won 60 games. They surprised everyone and took the number one seeded Pacers to seven games. Who could forget Pero Antic making Roy Hibbert look like a fool:

That unexpected playoff success boosted Atlanta’s confidence going into the following season.

The Pacers should be trying to replicate the Hawks, and it all starts with Sabonis taking a Horford-type role with the team.