DALLAS – Sometimes a picture truly is worth 1,000 words.
When Domantas Sabonis was asked how proud he is to see Gonzaga again ranked No. 1 in college basketball, the Indiana big man didn’t utter a word.
Instead, he unzipped his Pacers warm-up to show a white Bulldogs T-shirt underneath, while flashing a huge smile that said it all.
“It was awesome,” Sabonis, who is battling a minor ankle issue, said of his time in Spokane after a recent loss in Dallas in which he didn’t play. “It was amazing. I came from Europe. I was a kid over here, and I enjoyed every bit of it. That’s my family.”
Now 22, he was originally the 11th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft by Orlando, which then traded him to Oklahoma City. He spent his rookie season with the Thunder before being part of a blockbuster trade in summer 2017 which sent Paul George to OKC, with Sabonis and Victor Oladipo going to Indiana.
To say he’s been a great fit with the Pacers is a huge understatement. Last season, Sabonis averaged 11.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and two assists in 74 games. Through 59 games this season, he is averaging 14.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and has 24 double-doubles, most which have come off the bench.
He’s found his basketball happy place in the Hoosier State, and credits much of his success to Pacers head coach Nate McMillan.
“Yeah, I’m just very happy here. Happy to be here with a team that trusts me and lets me play my game,” Sabonis said. “It’s been amazing. Ever since I came here, he (McMillan) has trusted in me. When I came from OKC, he saw a different way to play me, a way that I’ve been more used to playing. And he lets me be myself. I really appreciate it, because who knows where I would have been if he didn’t give me this chance?”
McMillan spent his entire 12-year playing career in Seattle, where he was in countless battles between the Sonics and Portland Trail Blazers, the team of Sabonis’ Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame father, Arvydas.
McMillian sees several similarities between father and son.
“Both high-IQ players. Really good passers for big men, their ability to post, play out of the post, pass out of the post, score in the post,” McMillan said.
“The similarity is just their basketball IQ, their feel for the game. They do a good job of making their teammates better.”
When told what his coach said about his similarities with his father, Sabonis took such praise as an honor.
“Yeah, it’s awesome. My dad was one of the best,” Sabonis said. “His IQ, his passing, his feel for the game was amazing, so to get that kind of a compliment is pretty nice. I’m so proud of my dad. Everything he did was unbelievable. Just to be in the NBA now and follow in his footsteps is awesome. I work hard every day just to become a better player and a better person.”
Playing in the NBA is a full-time job, especially this time of year when every team is making its final push toward clinching a playoff spot. Even with a hectic schedule which often includes playing on consecutive nights, Sabonis still finds time to keep tabs on the Bulldogs.
When asked to compare himself and Kyle Wiltjer, now playing in Spain, to Gonzaga’s current dynamic duo of Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura, he gave big props to the Bulldogs’ current tandem.
“Oh, it’s two different combos, two different athletes. We (Wiltjer and I) were, I would say, bruisers and (about) getting it done,” Sabonis said. “Wiltjer’s a shooter. They (Clarke and Hachimura) are way more athletic than us. It’s different basketball now. They’re playing amazing. A lot of highlights, a lot of dunks, alley-oops, just playing real solid basketball.”
Sabonis is also proud to be one of four ex-Bulldogs playing in the NBA. Anytime he sees any of the other three – Zach Collins of Portland, Kelly Olynyk of Miami or Johnathan Williams, on a two-way contract with the Lakers – it’s special.
“It’s awesome (to be part of that fraternity),” Sabonis said. “I know Kelly a lot better than Collins. I wasn’t there with Collins. Kelly recruited me. I recruited Collins. It’s just awesome seeing those guys, because in summer everybody goes back, so we’re just all together playing pickup, just enjoying Spokane in the summer.”
Another big source of pride for Sabonis is the opportunity to represent Lithuania in international play. At 22, he’s already played in one Olympics, the 2016 Rio Summer Games, and looks to see more international action in the future, another way of following in his famous father’s footsteps.
“I love it. If I could play every summer, I would play for my national team,” Sabonis said. “It’s different than playing for your team. It’s your country. The whole country’s behind you, supporting you, especially in Lithuania (where)basketball is the No. 1 sport. It’s just a different feeling.”
Sabonis credits his two seasons at Gonzaga and international experience for helping lay the foundation for his success as a professional to date, experiences that helped him develop a simple mentality, one which has served him well.
“Every year I get more confident, more comfortable. You get that experience,” he said. “Same team now, second year, so you just feel better with everybody, more confident, working on your game. Every game, you just want to come out and be better.”
Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.
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