I used to think I was pretty knowledgeable about the NBA Draft. Then I started writing about the Oklahoma City Thunder. Every year, I try to write a pre-draft article on who the Thunder may take, and every year I’m terribly off. Three years ago, I predicted the Thunder would draft Mitch McGary….in the second round. In addition, I had no idea who Josh Huestis was when the Thunder took him with the 29th pick. In my defense, though, no one knew who Huestis was when he got drafted. This past draft, with the Thunder trading away all their picks in previous deals, I figured the Thunder would likely try to obtain either a late first round pick or a 2nd rounder. I thought the Thunder could possibly grab Thon Maker or Caris LeVert if they slipped into the late first round (they didn’t slip). Or maybe they could take Gary Payton II or Kay Felder in the 2nd round (they didn’t).
But once again, the Thunder flipped the script on any prediction I made about the team and this draft. The morning leading up to the draft, the rumors began circulating that the Thunder were possibly shopping Serge Ibaka. Even though Ibaka was heading into the final year of his deal, many thought there was no way the Thunder were going to mess with their team chemistry after coming within 5 minutes of the NBA Finals. They thought Durant would return and the team would go into the next season basically intact from the previous season.
Then it happened. ESPN showed a shot of the Magic’s draft war room before their selection was to be announced. Everyone in the war room was clapping and cheering like they had won something. Initially, when I saw this, I thought to myself, “Why the hell are they so happy?” Then, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced the selection of Domantas Sabonis, and I was even more perplexed. I mean, Sabonis was good in college, but I didn’t think he warranted the applause and cheer that was going on in the Magic’s war room. They were cheering like they had finally acquired the final piece to a championship puzzle. I began to wonder whether Magic GM Rob Hennigan thought he had drafted Arvydas Sabonis.
Word got out several minutes later that Oklahoma City had indeed traded Ibaka and it was to Orlando in exchange for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and the rights to Sabonis. After the initial shock wore off that one of the pillars of the Thunder had been traded, my first reaction was, “Wow! They were cheering like that for Serge Ibaka? He’s going to love it in Orlando.” My subsequent thoughts after that dealt with the players the Thunder had acquired. In regards to Sabonis, I look at him as a cross between Nick Collison and Mitch McGary. Someone who’s had the game ingrained into his DNA, but also someone who as athletic enough and skilled enough to be productive while on the floor.
The 6’10” lefty has a good midrange game and has the mechanics to eventually develop a 3-point shot. In college, he was a bull on the inside, but in the NBA, he’ll need to build up his body a little more to be that type of player. Until then, he’ll likely be a mid-range pick and pop candidate and someone who will sneak in for offensive rebounds from time to time.2015-15 Statistics
(NCAA) 36 GP, 31.9 mins, 17.6 pts, 11.8 rebs, 1.8 asts, 0.6 stls, 0.9 blks, 61.1% FG, 35.7% 3pt FG, 76.9% FTBest-Case Scenario
If you saw the highlights of the Blue-White scrimmage, then you likely saw what Sabonis’ best case scenario is for this season. Someone who will take advantage of pick and pop opportunities with Russell Westbrook and Oladipo. Someone who can run a high/low with another big man. And hopefully someone who can eventually develop into a small ball 5. This is literally a tabula rasa for Billy Donovan, in regards to a young big with a high basketball IQ. If Donovan truly wants to run a read and react system, having someone like Sabonis on the inside is a start.
Does Sabonis have his limitations? Yes. He doesn’t have a big wingspan or standing reach, and he’s only 20 years of age. He’ll need time to develop and he’ll likely need a couple years worth of work in the weight room to get his prime NBA body. But his high basketball IQ should help him navigate as he gets used to the speed of the game.Worst-Case Scenario
For as good of a pedigree as Sabonis has, he will still be a rookie this season. Sabonis’ physical limitation may prevent him from getting the necessary playing time to fully develop this season. While he could have a Draymond Green-like impact on this team, he is definitely not Green-like defensively. He’ll struggle at protecting the rim and will likely struggle at keeping up with wings on the perimeter. In the Olympics, during Lithuania’s first game against host country Brazil, Leandro Barbosa blew by Sabonis twice and caused him to pick up a foul another time in the first half of that game. Eventually, he caught on, but Barbosa isn’t what he used to be and he was still getting by Sabonis. He’ll definitely be a work in progress throughout the season.Percentage he gets traded sometime during the season:
5% – The Thunder really like Sabonis. If he develops on the trajectory they expect for him, he’ll likely go the route of Steven Adams as one of the core members of the organization in the future. The only way the Thunder trade Sabonis this season is if it is a Godfather offer (Blake Griffin, Gordon Hayward, etc).Sabonis’ Season Preview
I expect Sabonis to see playing time from the beginning of the season, especially with the Thunder’s first 3 games being against what will likely be three of the worst teams in the league. Sabonis has many of the offensive tools Donovan likes in a big man and he will work this season to get Sabonis adapted to the game defensively. If there is one thing I see with Sabonis its his willingness to compete; his willingness to get a little dirty on the inside. Mentors like Steven Adams and Nick Collison will teach Sabonis the nuances of the inside game and will get the most out of him. Sabonis will struggle defensively at first. But I can see him adapting to the speed of the game and becoming a smart defender that will pick and choose his spots. My bold prediction for Sabonis: he’ll lead the team in fouls, but also in charges.