When Domantas Sabonis was selected by the Orlando Magic with the 11th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, he was immediately traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder along with Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova in exchange for Serge Ibaka.
Despite averaging 17.6 points and 11.8 rebounds in 31.9 minutes as a sophomore at Gonzaga University, the Magic apparently felt as though landing Ibaka would be the best move for their franchise and had no problem including the unproven Sabonis in the deal.
Although he started 66 of 81 regular-season games with the Thunder as a rookie, Sabonis struggled to make much of an impact, averaging just 5.9 points and 3.6 rebounds in 20.1 minutes per contest. This summer, he was added as a throw-in along with Oladipo to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Paul George in one of the most talked-about trades in recent memory.
If his play to start this season is any indication, the Magic and Thunder may be kicking themselves for letting him go. Through 20 games, he has averaged 12.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 25.5 minutes. In other words, he's a completely different player than he was last year.
In eight starts (due to a Myles Turner injury), he has averaged a double-double with 12.9 points and 11.0 rebounds in 27.8 minutes. Most notable is his vasty-improved offensive game, some of which models his father Arvydas Sabonis, who still is regarded as one of the NBA's all-time best European players after spending seven seasons in the league on the Portland Trail Blazers back in the day.
Sabonis' teammates seem to really enjoy playing with him because of his willingness to find the open man and his general feel for the game.
“He makes a big difference,” outspoken sixth man Lance Stephenson said of playing with Sabonis, as reported by Derek Kramer of iPacers.com. “When he’s on the floor, he’s screening and when he gets the ball in the paint, there’s like an 80 percent chance that it’s going in or he’ll make the right play. I feel very comfortable and confident that when I play with him he’s going to make the right decisions.”
Not only are the Pacers comfortable working their offense through Sabonis in the high post and at the top of the key, but he has also embraced the role as a facilitator in addition to his other duties on the floor.
"Among fives logging fewer than 30 minutes per game, only Joel Embiid (54.2) is averaging more passes than Indiana’s reserve center (46.8)," C. Cooper of Indy Cornrows pointed out last week.
Overall, his comfort level in Indiana his much higher than it was alongside Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City last season.
"I think I’m more comfortable here with my role and the type of play and situation we are in. I think it better suits my game and having had one year under my belt has helped a lot too," Sabonis said during a recent interview with Warren Shaw of BBall Breakdown.
Since he can play either the four or the five, he's able to stay on the floor for extended periods of time, including alongside Myles Turner, who some view as the future face of the franchise.
"To be honest, on this team in the situation we’re in, the four and the five essentially have the same role. It’s just one is up and one is down. It doesn’t really matter they are both very similar. On the court I just feel my teammates do a great job finding me and I think I do a great job finding them. It just works out pretty well," Sabonis told Shaw.
Although he has also shared time alongside Thaddeus Young, playing alongside Turner makes Sabonis' life much easier.
"I think it can be really great. I can be the five he can be the four or the other way around. If I’m the five he spreads out the court. When I’m making passes I can kick out to three and he can get wide open easier looks for him. Obviously he brings defense, shot blocking, toughness to our team and we can complement each other in many ways," Sabonis said of Turner.
With the breakout of Victor Oladipo and the potential of both Sabonis and Turner, the Pacers seem like a team to watch out for in the Eastern Conference for years to come.
As for the Magic and the Thunder? They might have overlooked a future All-Star.