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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

The two sides of Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis

Gonzaga sophomore Domantas Sabonis doesn’t hide his emotions on the basketball court. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga sophomore Domantas Sabonis doesn’t hide his emotions on the basketball court. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

There are a few ways this can go.

The entry pass can find Domantas Sabonis, who maneuvers for a soft, left-handed jump hook. Or the entry pass leads Sabonis for a two-handed dunk, followed by a double-arm flex and primal shouts. Or the entry pass never comes, despite Sabonis demanding the ball with a post defender pinned deep in the paint.

And then during the next break comes the Sabonis-to-guard chat. It’s not as one-sided as it appears.

“I’m fighting for position and obviously if they don’t see the pass or they’re scared of turning it over I understand,” Sabonis said. “I usually go up and ask them if they saw me. A lot of times I might think I’m open but there might be back-side help I can’t see. Most of the time I’m wrong, but …”

It never hurts to ask. Gonzaga followers have seen these scenarios play out in virtually every game of Sabonis’ two seasons as a Zag. He is fully engaged on the court, animated, demonstrative and passionate.

What fans don’t see is Sabonis off the court, the calm, quiet jokester always in pursuit of the next good nap.

“He likes to relax, joke around, goof around like any teenage kid,” said guard Kyle Dranginis, roommates with Sabonis and freshman guard Josh Perkins. “You see him on the court and he’s a whole different animal.”

A comparison pops into Dranginis’ mind.

“Gary (Bell Jr.) was kind of like that but he wasn’t as emotional as Domas,” Dranginis said. “He wears his emotions on his sleeves when he plays.”

Sabonis comes by it naturally. He is his father’s son, and when you’re the son of Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis, there are eyes watching your every move.

“I love basketball and it just comes out,” the 6-foot-11 sophomore said. “I get it from my dad I guess. He also had a lot of emotion. People say I remind them of him.”

And off the court?

“Actually from my dad, too,” Sabonis said. “He was really shy but on the court a different person. I’m shy to people I don’t know but normal when I get confidence with my friends.”

Sabonis admits to occasionally cringing when watching game video and his emotions spill out for all to see. No need, say his teammates.

“That’s the part I love about him,” guard Silas Melson said. “He deserves the ball any chance he calls for it. He’s a bonafide pro. If I was him, I’d be yelling, too. He’s actually a really understated leader. He hypes us up and gets us going on the floor.”

Assistant coach Tommy Lloyd did most of the footwork to make sure Sabonis sported a Gonzaga uniform. Lloyd noticed Sabonis putting up big numbers in the European U-16 championships and tracked down family contact information from the Portland Trail Blazers, Arvydas’ old team.

Tautvydas, Domantas’ older brother who goes by ‘Tuti’, was Lloyd’s connection throughout the recruiting process.

“The effort, the rebounding, the strength, the great left hand,” said Lloyd, who watched Sabonis at the European U-17 and U-18 championships. “It was all there.”

What wasn’t as perceptible was whether Sabonis, who had numerous professional options in Spain and Lithuania, had any interest in playing collegiately in the U.S.

“I don’t know if he had really considered it,” Lloyd said. “I was doing a fall recruiting trip and I swung by Malaga (Spain) and met with him and Tuti and it went from there. I felt after that meeting we had a real chance.”

Sabonis, who was also recruited by Arizona State, Oregon and Texas A&M, has followed up a solid freshman season (9.6 points, 6.9 rebounds) with a breakout sophomore season (17.2 points, 11.9 boards). The season-ending back injury to Przemek Karnowski has bumped Sabonis from roughly 21 minutes to 31 minutes per game.

His routine is to complete school work during the day – he carries a 3.46 grade-point average in sport management – grab dinner and a nap and return to the McCarthey Athletic Center. He tailors workouts toward what he expects to see from the next opponent. He goes harder earlier in the week with shorter workouts closer to games.

“He’s so open to coaching and so receptive and hungry for it, and then he has this work ethic that’s just insatiable,” coach Mark Few said. “When you pair that with a really intelligent, quick-learning mind, the sky is the limit.”

Sabonis was on NBA Draft boards in his freshman season but early on stated that he was returning to Gonzaga to improve his game.’s Chad Ford has elevated Sabonis from No. 30 to No. 23 on his big board and projects Sabonis as the 26th pick.

Ford noted that Sabonis shoots 73 percent in the paint and has a high basketball IQ but questioned if a lack of length and athleticism would stunt his NBA production.

Sabonis knows he’ll have to make a decision but he’s in no hurry. There’s business to attend to as the second-seeded Zags (23-7) face No. 7 Portland in Saturday’s WCC tournament quarterfinals at the Orleans Arena.

“I haven’t given it any thought,” he said. “After the season, maybe my family will bring it up. I’m thinking about this team.”

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