Thrilling, daring, and strangely majestic, it’s one of the most unique moments in all of current Pacers basketball. Domantas Sabonis, a 6-foot-11, 240-pound center with passing vision akin to a point guard, rips the ball off the glass and impulsively pushes the ball up the floor in the open court without any consideration for his size and all the momentum of a large, yet surprisingly spry, boulder rolling down a hill.
For those brief seconds, with his eyes constantly attuned to the presence of cutters and his dribble at times flirting with disaster, imagining a reality where the lefty big man’s handle gets unceremoniously snatched feels just as plausible as one where he does something so slick as to justify a celebratory hop-step out of appreciation for his own unexpected artistry.
In total, Grab-and-Go Sabonis, along with the mixed bag of emotions his sporadic existence inspires, has been visible in the wild 37 times this season. After reviewing all of those possessions and experiencing feelings of both awe and terror, here is what I learned.
Sabonis isn’t only bringing the ball up floor out of duress
Granted, when there’s no available path for a clean outlet pass and every other surrounding option has been denied, there are justifiable occasions when bigs have no choice but to sherpa the ball across half-court in order to avoid an 8-second violation. In the case of Sabonis, however, he also bolts for the other end of the floor even when he has ample time and space to find a guard.
In each of these instances (as well as several others), the fact that his teammates are ahead of him suggests that he has the team’s stamp of approval to push the pace at his own discretion — or, at the very least, has yet to have his point center privileges taken away.
Either way, when he’s finding T.J. Warren slicing to the basket or setting Doug McDermott up for three as a trailer, it’s easy to see why it would be beneficial for the team’s best passer to keep the ball in his hands directly off the rim and thus be activated as a mobile hub.
That said, the Pacers aren’t exactly emphasizing running by eliminating the middle man
Rather than taking time to outlet the ball to a guard only for that same guard to then enter the ball back to Sabonis at the elbow or the block, logic suggests that it would be faster for Sabonis to take matters into his own hands and dribble directly into a hand-off or post-up (yes, he’s done this). In reality, though, the Pacers don’t generate as many very early, or very late, shots when Sabonis grabs-and-goes as they do overall.
(Note: So as to properly reflect how quickly the Pacers have played this season on any possession that features Sabonis pushing the ball up the floor off of a rebound — and not just those when his grab-and-go forays lead directly to points, assists, or turnovers — instances where he safely brought the ball across half-court and the team was either forced to reset or flowed into another mode of offense to generate a field-goal attempt were also included in the following chart. From here on out, we’ll refer to these otherwise passive grab-and-go possessions as “safe passage” possessions.)
The easy answer here is to blame the lefty big man’s lack of pure speed. On possessions where the Pacers actually look to run, there’s no way Sabonis is going to be able to push the ball up the floor against defense as fast as a guard — let alone a healthy version of Victor Oladipo. And yet, from what we saw above, we know he is capable of reading the defense in a blink of an eye when his teammates spray out in front of him, so what gives?
For one thing, playing “late” isn’t always a bad thing. When Sabonis is steering the offense and predicting where the next pass needs to go, the Pacers have a tendency to fall in line and make quick decisions that produce the desired effect of forcing opposing defenses to work, even though the end result may not always be a quick shot.
But...Sabonis’ relative lack of dexterity is glaring
One thing that pops when you review the film of Sabonis doing point guard things is how often he makes a pass to and/or attacks from the left side of the floor. In fact, this is so much the case that even on the rare occasions when he deigns to go right he can still at times be seen dribbling predominantly with his left.
Bearing that in mind, take a look at this “safe passage” possession against the Magic. With Evan Fournier loading to the ball from the right side, notice how Sabonis makes a beeline for his comfort zone and hurries to pitch the ball to ...uh.... Jakarr Sampson, who then gets turned on the drive, thereby forcing the team to play out of pocket and deeper into the shot-clock.
To be fair, Indiana’s five-man unit in this clip has barely played together this season, which therefore perhaps explains the lack of method in their fastness and why T.J. Warren never ended up touching the ball as was clearly intended; nevertheless, it still doesn’t project particularly well as to what might happen if defenses were to actually key in on Sabonis’ handle in open space.
For instance, check out how dicey things got against the Blazers, Raptors, and Pelicans when defenders of every shape and size lunged at Sabonis’ strong hand and forced him to either wrap the ball behind his back or reverse pivot in order to successfully maneuver through traffic while operating at higher speeds.
On the season, Sabonis has only recorded three turnovers specifically out of grab-and-go derived offense, but the Pacers have scored slightly less than a point per possession on trips when he snares the rebound and pushes the ball up the floor before immediately passing to a teammate for a shot or attempting to score himself, compared to 1.09 points per possession off any missed field goal attempt.
Still, over a larger sample size, the film supports there being potential in his ability to charge up the floor and sling passes to his teammates for layups and threes, but only if he can grow in his ability to do so while jockeying against defense. Otherwise, in the absence of being able to navigate both sides of the floor without obvious preference, Grab-and-Go Sabonis will continue to be more of a rarely seen, mythical being capable of dazzling on occasion rather than a consistently viable threat.