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NBA All-Star first returns: Domantas Sabonis ranks distant seventh

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Sabonis will have to rely on the coaches to make his second All-Star appearance.

Indiana Pacers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The NBA on Thursday released the first returns for the 2021 All-Star Game fan voting, and the blue & gold have just one player ranked in the top-10: Domantas Sabonis, who came in at seventh among frontcourt players in the Eastern Conference.

Of course, to say he’s seventh doesn’t quite do justice to how far behind he is in the voting relative to his competitors, since he’d need more than four times his current vote total just to finish in fourth.

  1. Kevin Durant (BKN) - 2,302,705
  2. Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL) - 1,752,182
  3. Joel Embiid (PHI) - 1,584,028
  4. Jayson Tatum (BOS) - 822,151
  5. Jimmy Butler (MIA) - 327,929
  6. Bam Adebayo (MIA) - 307,498
  7. Domantas Sabonis (IND) - 186,275

Sabonis, who is averaging career highs in points (21.6) and assists (5.7) while snaring twelve rebounds per game and adding a 3-point shot and one-legged fadeaway to the mix, not only has 20 double-doubles in 22 games, but also operates as the center of the Pacers’ universe on offense, leading the league in passes per game as well as ranking second in touches.

Playing on and off the ball while also playing physical and coming back and forth out of the paint to flow from running delay action to setting screens and crashing for rebounds on heavy minutes, he’s also one of the most unique players in the league, placing in the top six among all players in distance travelled, which is something only one other center (Karl Anthony-Towns) has done since the NBA started making tracking data available in 2013-14. And yet, Sabonis doesn’t just rack up miles on offense. For better or worse, only two players in the league are outstepping Sabonis on defense, where Indiana’s offensive fulcrum is expected to hedge side pick-and-rolls, help-and-fly, and pressure at the line of the ball (even against non-shooters) — all without losing steam to pace the team at the rim.

Overall, in cutting out the long-twos from the previous administration under Nate McMillan, the Pacers have jumped from 28th (65 percent) to third (78 percent) in frequency of shots taken at the rim or as threes. Of course, the majority of the change has come at the rim, where Indiana leads the league in rim frequency (40 percent) and points in the paint, which is thanks in large part to Sabonis — who ranks fourth in total rim volume, trailing only Zion Williamson, Andre Drummond, and Giannis Antetokoummpo, on over 70 percent shooting. Doug McDermott, meanwhile, ranks third on the team in rim makes and no one has assisted the sharpshooter more at the basket (18) or in total (34) than Sabonis and the same can be said for Brogdon, who has been assisted a team-high 24 times by the lefty big man, though more so away from the rim.

Sabonis is also the only player on the team who regularly sees extra bodies, and while his free throw percentage is somewhat concerning at only 69 percent, the exaggerated coverage he’s drawn has contributed to Myles Turner’s improved ability to find open shots, whether slicing to the rim at a 45-degree angle or orbiting around the arc. And, again, like Brogdon and McDermott, no has one has assisted Turner more than Sabonis, which, in part, is due to his gravity.

Put simply, the Pacers lead the league with 485 made field-goals at the rim and between his own makes (128) and those he’s assisted on (49), Sabonis accounts for well over a third of the team’s main source of offense — not counting his screens or the way the threat of his rim pressure opens up drives for others.

Oh, and there’s also this: Indiana has the fourth-best offense, scoring 114.5 points per 100 possessions when playing against the top-10 defenses, per Cleaning the Glass. Better still, when Sabonis has been on the floor in those games, Indiana has been even more efficient, producing 116.07 points per 100 possessions — the equivalent of a top-three offense. Consequently, while the high-leverage defense has slide back to the pack and has been relatively susceptible to opponent potency, falling to 15th against top-10 offenses, the offensive production, with the exception of the fourth-quarter fall-off factor and heavy minutes load, has been comparably more stable against stiffer defenses — especially in the half-court, where it largely flows through and around Sabonis.

Brogdon, meanwhile, didn’t register among the top-10 in backcourt fan balloting, but has also been integral to the team’s remade offense, averaging 22.4 points and 6.8 assists, while shooting 40 percent from deep — including improving by 10-percentage points over last season (30.7 percent) on off-the-dribble threes (41.6 percent). By comparison to the others players in the Eastern Conference who are averaging at least three pull-up threes per game, only Kyrie Irving is posting a higher conversion rate (44 percent), and if not for Brogdon’s 4.2 attempts per game, the Pacers would be the least prolific team in the league at cracking open defenses off-the-dribble from deep, ranking dead-last in volume.

From a playmaking standpoint, Brogdon has more total assists (150) than Sabonis (125), but over 30 percent of his dimes (46) have come courtesy of ... yep, Sabonis — which is second only to what Marcus Smart has dished to Jaylen Brown (47) in terms of assist combos.

As things currently stand, Washington’s Bradley Beal, the league’s leading scorer, and Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving, who missed some games earlier this season for unspecified reasons but is currently putting forth a 50-40-90 effort, are in poll position as back-court starters.

Per usual, the fan vote will account for 50 percent of the vote with the other 50 percent being made up by current players and a media panel. Rightfully so, that weighted math won’t leap-frog Sabonis over the likes of Durant, Embiid, Antetokounmpo, or Tatum, but it might him edge out some of the representation from Miami (given that Jimmy Butler has only played in nine game) while also perhaps earning Brogdon a seat at the top-10 table (we’re looking at you, Derrick Rose).

That said, given that it seems as though Indiana’s top-two players will have to rely on the coaches to make the cut, adding to the win column, after going 4-6 in their last 10 games, will most likely be paramount to winning over a voting panel that tends to value winning.

According to NBA.com, TNT will announce the reserves, as chosen by the coaches, on Tuesday, February 23. The remaining fan voting updates will be shared on Thursday, February 4 and Thursday, February 11.