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‘Everybody’s playing at a high level in the NBA.’ Domantas Sabonis leads a growing contingent of pros from Gonzaga

UPDATED: Thu., April 1, 2021

Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura, left, and Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis, both former Gonzaga players, visit after exchanging jerseys following Monday’s NBA game in Washington. The Wizards won 132-124.  (Associated Press)
Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura, left, and Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis, both former Gonzaga players, visit after exchanging jerseys following Monday’s NBA game in Washington. The Wizards won 132-124. (Associated Press)

INDIANAPOLIS – All the pieces seemed to be coming together for Domantas Sabonis: the 2021 NCAA Tournament stationed in his home city of Indianapolis, his Gonzaga Bulldogs advancing through to the Final Four, the Indiana Pacers back at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for four of the next five games.

To cap it all off, a rest day on Monday – the date Sabonis’ college team could be playing in the national championship at Lucas Oil Stadium.

But, like many have over the last year, a good idea was spoiled by the lingering coronavirus pandemic and strict health and safety protocols that have essentially suffocated the social lives of professional athletes who are in season. Rather than watching the Bulldogs in person, the biggest Gonzaga fan in the Hoosier State will have to watch a potential national title matchup with Baylor or Houston on a TV screen from the confines of his home just a few miles from the site of the Final Four.

“It sucks. I’m texting with the coaches, Tommy (Lloyd), (Mark) Few and some of the guys,” Sabonis told reporters on a Zoom call Wednesday after the Pacers’ shootaround in Indianapolis. “Not being able to see them is not fun. Having them so close. Some of the wives have come to our last game in Indy. Hopefully, I can get some tickets for some people to come to the game against Miami tonight. But not much interaction from the NCAA part and the NBA part of the protocols. … I wish (I could go), but NBA protocols say otherwise.”

Sabonis recently received a COVID-19 vaccination, but the NBA’s health and safety guidelines still limit players from interacting with the outside world. Even if there was some leeway, it’s unlikely the two-time All-Star would be mingling with the Bulldogs, who’ve been sequestered in their Indianapolis bubble since the second week of March.

Sabonis continues to send his former coaches well-wishes via text. The fourth-year pro offered more words of encouragement during a 7-minute Zoom call largely centered around Gonzaga’s run in the Big Dance, rather than Wednesday’s game with the Miami Heat.

“Super happy for the coaching staff, for everybody, the program,” Sabonis said. “It’s been one of the best college basketball programs for a while now and I’m just happy these last five, six years, they’ve always been up top.”

Sabonis never played in the Final Four – the Bulldogs made their first appearance the year after he went pro – so when asked what advice he’d offer Gonzaga players as they enter Saturday’s matchup with UCLA, the former second-team All-American flashed a smile and claimed he was no authority on the subject, assured the Bulldogs didn’t need his help.

“There’s not much I can say now. They’ve all made it further than I ever have now, the team,” Sabonis said. “They made it to the Final Four, so just keep doing what you’re doing. They’re playing calm, they’re playing poised, they’re taking their time. Everything they’re doing is great. I just hope they stay that way and finish it off.”

Since he was selected by Oklahoma City with the 11th overall pick of the 2016 NBA draft, Sabonis has become a budding star and one of the league’s most dominant two-way post players. He recently replaced Kevin Durant in the 2021 All-Star Game, making his second consecutive appearance at the event, and beat out Nikola Vucevic to win the NBA Skills Challenge.

As a member of the undefeated national champion Indiana Hoosiers in 1975-76, Pacers commentator Quinn Buckner is someone who knows a thing or two about attaining basketball stardom in the state. He’s a staunch admirer of Sabonis and is willing to look past the fact the Zags are on the cusp of becoming the first team since the 75-76 Hoosiers to cap an unbeaten season with a national title.

“He’s a hell of kid and a terrific player. Domas gets it and works incredibly hard and has a great sense of who he is on and off the court,” Buckner recently told The Spokesman-Review. “I liked him the first time I saw him because I knew he was from Gonzaga, I knew he was going to be well-coached and he knew how to play. … He and (Nikola) Jokic are the two best passing bigs in basketball.

“All the fundamental passes, when Domas makes back-door passes to a moving target, a lot of wings and guards can’t do that. Still the most underrated attribute in basketball is the pass.”

While Sabonis is the most decorated ex-Zag currently in the NBA, he represents a rapidly growing pool of players that has not only found its way into the league after suiting up for the Jesuit school in Spokane, but become household names in respective NBA cities.

The next time Few tries to sell a high-profile recruit on Gonzaga, there’s a chance Monday’s slate of NBA games will be part of the pitch. In Indiana’s 132-124 loss to Washington, Sabonis scored 35 points with 11 rebounds and six assists. Former Zag Rui Hachimura had 26 points and eight rebounds for the Wizards. On the same night, ex-GU center Kelly Olynyk, recently acquired by the Houston Rockets, scored 30 points and hauled down 15 rebounds in a 120-110 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Former Zag Brandon Clarke had a well-rounded line off the bench for Memphis, scoring seven points with five rebounds and three assists. A third ex-GU player, Killian Tille, suited up for Memphis but didn’t play.

“It’s really cool. Soon, it’s going to be like every other night we see a player from the program,” Sabonis said. “That just speaks to how far the program has come and the players we are producing. Everybody’s playing at a high level in the NBA, so that’s the best part.”

Gonzaga post players have done especially well at the next level. Current sophomore Drew Timme, the NCAA Tournament’s West Region MVP, plays a fundamentally sound game that in some ways compares to that of Sabonis.

Timme should be the next Bulldogs big to get a shot in the NBA. That could come sooner rather than later if he can help guide Gonzaga to the school’s first NCAA championship.

“He’s playing amazing and it’s great to see the tradition of big men keep succeeding year in and year out,” Sabonis said of Timme. “I wish him only but the best and they have to finish it off now.”

Sabonis said the Bulldogs are “stacked” and calls their depth “dangerous, especially come tournament time.”

What would a national title mean for GU’s fans?

“Everything to everyone,” Sabonis said. “The city of Spokane, it’s something we’ve been dreaming for a long time and to finally get it would be amazing. Especially to do it undefeated would be even better.”

The Spokesman-Review’s Jim Meehan contributed to this story.

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