Alpha Dog: Could this be the year of Domantas Sabonis?

All this week, we’re analyzing each of the Indiana Pacers starters in Victor Oladipo’s absence to determine who will take the lead role offensively. Today’s candidate: Domantas Sabonis.

While the Indiana Pacers certainly improved in stride this summer, the Eastern Conference arguably looks stronger top-to-bottom right now than it has in decades. After one of the wildest NBA offseasons ever, the conference saw a substantial shift and pundits are now scrambling to figure out who the favorite in the conference is.

While there may not be a team as powerful as LeBron James’ Heat and Cavalier teams were, the conference is loaded with talent. Teams are going to be scrapping with each other for wins on a nightly basis. With Victor Oladipo slated to miss the first couple months of the looming season, the Pacers are going to need multiple guys to step up in his absence. The Pacers will need various players to improve if they are to keep track with the top of the conference while waiting on their star’s return.

With Oladipo sidelined, Pacer fans are left trying to figure out who will become the “go-to” player. Yes, the Pacers are currently priding themselves on building a roster loaded with depth that doesn’t feature or need a “top dog” type. However, we’re lying to ourselves if we aren’t secretly predicting who the primary player will become in the wake of Oladipo’s absence. In a tight, close game with the clock winding down who will Indiana turn to when they need a basket?

Fellow writers have made a case for the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, and T.J. Warren this week. Placing a bet on a ball-handling guard or a scoring wing makes sense, but I don’t think it will be any of those players. I am confident that the upcoming season will feature a lot of positive storylines for the Pacers. One of them will be the continued development of the young big man Domantas Sabonis. I predict Sabonis will emerge as the face of this Pacers team during the first couple months of the season.

We should preface this by saying that there is not another player in the NBA that has improved over the past two seasons more than Domantas Sabonis. After a forgettable first year in Oklahoma City, Sabonis has found the perfect home in Indiana.

It really can be funny how things play out sometimes. When the Pacers traded superstar Paul George to Oklahoma City, fans saw the trade package received by Indiana and were befuddled. I’ll personally admit when I saw Paul George got traded for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis I thought there had to be a mistake. I vividly remember thinking “‘that’s ALL Indiana got for George?!” Now, Sabonis and Oladipo are arguably the two most important players on a playoff team while George no longer plays for Oklahoma City.

After averaging 6 points and 3.5 rebounds on 40% shooting as a rookie, Sabonis made huge improvements in year two as a Pacer. Oklahoma City thrust him into a role that did not suit his game. The Thunder tried to play him as a stretch power forward, and this was a role that was a poor match for his skillset. This became evident as soon as he put on a Pacers uniform. The Pacers moved him to center (Sabonis spent 84% of his minutes at power forward in Oklahoma City, the following year he spent 81% of his minutes at center in Indiana). This made an extraordinary difference in his outlook as an NBA player.

During his sophomore campaign, Sabonis averaged 11.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 2 assists per game while shooting 51.4%. These numbers made another jump in year three, where Sabonis averaged 14.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per contest.

Still only 23 years of age, it’s fair to say that Sabonis is not even close to reaching his ceiling yet. As his usage is undoubtedly to increase in Oladipo’s absence, he should be primed and ready to make another huge stride in year four. In addition to being a rapidly improving player, Sabonis will also be one of the more experienced Pacer players on this roster. Jeremy Lamb, T.J. Warren, and Malcolm Brogdon are all newcomers that will be adjusting to a new city and a new team.

Meanwhile, Sabonis has been in Indiana for two years and has already established himself as a stalwart. The experience of Sabonis is another reason why he is an obvious choice to become Indiana’s commander during the first couple months of the season. I’ll take it a step further and predict that Sabonis will place himself in position to be selected for the All-Star game come February.

A couple of weeks ago, fellow 8 Points, 9 Seconds contributor William Furr wrote a great piece about Indiana’s commitment to going counter-culture with Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, and rookie Goga Bitadze.

NBA teams are currently placing an insistence on adding small-ball power forwards that can stretch the floor with their ability to shoot the ball. In the article mentioned above, Furr hypothesized that the Pacers are being bold and going against the grain by giving substantial minutes to more traditional big men like Sabonis and Bitadze.

Essentially, the Pacers will be playing multiple big men that specialize in old-fashioned, back-to-the-basket “bully ball.” Meanwhile, almost every other team is scrambling and overpaying players that fit the stretch four archetype. Maybe the Pacers are trying an experiment that will backfire, or perhaps they’re secretly ahead of the curve.

A few weeks ago, Jared Dubin of FiveThirtyEight published an article where he argued that the NBA’s small-ball movement could be coming to an end. In the article, Dubin used evidence from this offseason that shows teams could be moving more towards two-big lineups again.

Perhaps Indiana’s front office is also predicting the end of the small-ball era, and they’re trying to get ahead of the game. Or maybe they believe they have a lot of talented big men that are too good not to play.

Regardless, Sabonis is in for a phenomenal fourth year. When he first arrived in Indiana, he was an inconsistent (but talented) young player that needed improvement. However, we are now well beyond at that evaluation. Sabonis has now shown to be a standout basketball player. The next step is him becoming a team leader and an all-star player.

I can’t think of a better time for Sabonis to take that next leap than this upcoming season. With Oladipo recovering from an injury, and a locker room full of new faces, the Pacers need stability now more than ever. There is no player more ready to step into this role than Domantas Sabonis. While a lot of the new players are figuring out the unique culture and the new team, Sabonis will be the glue that holds the squad together. He’s going to have to do this to keep them in position for a favorable playoff spot.

In the new gauntlet that is the Eastern Conference, the Indiana Pacers are going to have to grind some games out. Sometimes, this means putting the ball in the hands of the big man and letting him work. Sabonis will thrive in these scenarios. Like every other NBA team, the Pacers will also be taking a lot of outside shots. Look for Sabonis to continue dominating the offensive glass and earning a lot of valuable buckets off the missed chances of his teammates.

It should be clear by now that I’m very bullish on Domantas Sabonis for the 2019-20 NBA season. There are plenty of factors that could result in him breaking through and having a 20 point per game season.

Next: Can T.J. Warren take the reigns of the offense in Oladipo's absence?

Between Oladipo’s injury, a core of new players, and Indiana’s commitment to playing bully ball the odds are in his favor. Don’t be surprised if you see Domantas Sabonis NBA all-star jerseys for sale in Bankers Life Fieldhouse come February. He will emerge as the face of the Indiana Pacers in the wake of Oladipo’s absence.


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