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Former Gonzaga standout Domantas Sabonis’ meteoric NBA rise is no surprise to anyone around Indiana’s versatile forward

UPDATED: Sun., March 22, 2020

By Stephen Hunt For The Spokesman-Review

DALLAS – It seems like forever ago now, but it was a special moment for Domantas Sabonis.

Several days before the sports world was sidelined by coronavirus, Sabonis had 20 points and 17 rebounds against Dallas on March 8, which gave the ex-Zag 50 double-doubles on the season, a Pacers franchise record.

“It always helps to win. I would trade those double-doubles for 50 wins in a heartbeat, but it’s crazy,” Sabonis said shortly after Indiana’s 112-109 win. “You grow up watching the NBA and just to have things like this for a franchise, I’m just happy. I’m lucky to be here. I appreciate them giving me this opportunity to have a starting role.”

To say he and Indiana have been an ideal fit for one another is a huge understatement. Prior to the March 11 suspension of the season, the former Bulldog averaged 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds and five assists per game, all careerbests, while playing a career-high 34.8 minutes per game. He also had started 62 games, the most since he started 66 for Oklahoma City as a rookie during the 2016-17 season.

Last month, he was an NBA All-Star for the first time, a reserve for the Eastern Conference, another experience he’ll never forget. “Oh, it was crazy. Pretty cool,” said Sabonis, now in his third season with the Pacers. “A surreal experience, being there with all the stars. Just enjoyed the moment being out there. The best part was having my family there.”

He relayed a funny story involving fellow Zags Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura, who were also in Chicago to play in the NBA Rising Stars Game as part of All-Star Weekend from Feb. 14-16.

“I saw Brandon once at the hotel,” Sabonis said. “Rui, they were at a restaurant across the street. I told him to come over. He didn’t, and I was like, ‘I’m the vet and you’re not coming over? I’m not going over there to see you, so it’s on you.’ I watched the (Rising Stars) game literally for two or three minutes, and there was a play where Rui, I think, tried to throw it to Clarke and it was the worst turnover I’ve ever seen in my life. I was like, where is the communication?”

Glancing at Sabonis’ numbers this season, it’s clear he had taken his already formidable skill set to another level, a breakout season if you will.

However, for Pacers head coach Nate McMillan, none of this proved surprising because he’s always known the affable big man could reach such heights.

“I thought when we got him he had a solid year,” McMillan said. “Of course, this year he becomes an All-Star. If you want to call that a breakout year. … He goes from a guy coming off the bench to a starter for us..”

For Sabonis, patience has been a virtue, especially after spending most of his first two seasons in the Hoosier State coming off the Pacers bench.

But he always knew that if he bided his time and kept doing great things when he hit the floor, he would eventually get a shot at starting again. Not only had that transpired this season, but he’d clearly taken the baton and ran with it.

“As a player, I feel like I could do this always. I’ve been begging for a larger role now for two years and they finally gave it to me,” Sabonis said. “I feel like there’s a lot more I can improve.

“I finally got in the right situation where they trust me with my game,” he said. “Just having fun with it, because it doesn’t last forever.”

Another big positive from his time in Indiana has been remaining teammates with guard Victor Oladipo, who he was traded with from Orlando to Oklahoma City on draft night in 2016, and again from the Thunder to the Pacers in 2017.

Speaking just before Sabonis on March 8, Oladipo couldn’t help but lob a little friendly fire his teammate’s way over his new franchise record.

“Not surprised. It took him too long to get it,” he joked. “I’m proud of him. I don’t think anybody is his biggest fan more than me, probably, other than his family, probably, and I bet you I’m probably still close.

“He’s like my brother, so congratulations to him,” Oladipo said.

That feeling of brotherhood is mutual.

“Vic’s my guy. My whole (pro) career’s been with him,” Sabonis said. “He’s been there for me the whole way. We’ve just got this bond. We finally came here, had that chance to really play together and show our talents. It’s been amazing since. I always have him in my corner.”

Unlike his previous trip to Dallas, when he was interviewed postgame while wearing a Gonzaga T-shirt, Sabonis wasn’t sporting any Zags gear this time around, but he did offer his thoughts on how the Bulldogs might have fared in the NCAA Tournament that was eventually canceled.

“Every year, once it’s the tournament, you never know. Especially this year, it’s wide open,” he said. “It’s tough to say. Obviously, I’m rooting for them to win it every single year, and hopefully they win it.”

While it’s wait until next year for the Zags, Sabonis and the Pacers hope their season resumes eventually.

Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.

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