Midway through the first quarter of the Indiana Pacers’ season-opener against the New York Knicks, Domantas Sabonis worked off an Iverson screen, flowed from the left elbow to the right wing and caught a pass with 14 seconds left on the shot clock. His defender, Nerlens Noel, didn’t close out, so the All-Star big man launched, connecting on his second long ball of the game, matching any output he posted during three prior seasons with Indiana and signifying new beginnings for the fifth-year center. Watching that first game, it would not take long to understand this season will unlock a heightened version of Sabonis, and the uptick in three-point volume is only part of the equation.
Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, Sabonis is further solidifying himself as one of the NBA’s premier offensive big men and elevating his game to a new level. Through eight games, he’s averaging 21.6 points, 12.6 rebounds and 6.1 assists on 61.6 percent true shooting (.563/.429/.647 split). Hovering around 24 percent, his usage rate, the typical barometer for offensive domineering, has not spiked from its 23 percent mark the prior two seasons. Per 100 possessions, he’s taking roughly the same amount of shots (19.1) that he has during his four-year Pacers tenure.
Instead, Bjorkgren constructed a non-traditional heliocentric offense around his star big man, providing him newfound paths to showcase the depths of his talents. Almost everything runs through Sabonis in some capacity, though in a vastly different manner than it does, say, Trae Young in Atlanta or did James Harden with the Mike D’Antoni-led Houston Rockets. Trailing only Nikola Jokic, he’s second in the NBA in touches per game (104.1). He’s tied with Rudy Gobert in screen assists (7.6) and leads all players in passes (80.7).
Last year, he ranked first in screen assists (7.0), third in passes (67.7) and sixth in touches (88.0), so Sabonis dictating the action on most plays is not a novel concept. Rather, the differentiator between this season and last season is the freedom he enjoys in each touch, and it’s helped guide Indiana from the 19th-ranked offense to fifth.
Most notably, he is afforded opportunities to lead the break, initiate outside of the paint and as a face-up scorer, with plays sometimes progressing quite slowly, but ultimately proving fruitful. The coaching staff trusts him to create and leverage his blend of ball skills, strength, craft and footwork, even if it requires lengthy stretches to unfold. Whereas his former head coach, Nate McMillan, predominantly featured him as a back-to-the-basket scorer and roll man, there’s much greater diversity this season. He was still enabled to trigger actions and play a vaguely similar style under the old regime, it’s just been vastly expanded with Bjorkgren in town.
Sabonis must be an absolute pain to battle against. He’s incredibly strong and physical, has an unrelenting motor, wields a bevy of ball and body fakes, and owns some of the best footwork in the league. There is no avenue he will not exhaust to create an opportunity for what he deems to be a quality shot. Containing him demands discipline, strength and mental acuity. Bjorkgren and Co. recognize the difficulty of meeting that criteria, and are letting their star big man operate as he pleases.
They’re also scheming him into advantageous positions as well, utilizing his fluidity to get him downhill. Most bigs cannot match his mobility and strength combination, and these plays seem reminiscent of actions we’d see guys like Ben Simmons, Pascal Siakam and Zion Williamson frequent. Indiana knows the versatility of its offensive hub, which is breeding creativity and varied scoring chances.
Part of what makes Sabonis such a good offensive player is his scalability. He’s one of the NBA’s top passing big men, a bone-crushing screener and instinctively floats into openings for easy buckets off the ball. The Pacers tap into all of that, running a motion- and screen-heavy attack that often involves him facilitating those sets.
The Pacers offense can capably run through Victor Oladipo (19.9 points per game, 26.8 percent usage) and Malcolm Brogdon (team-high 23.4 points per game, 24.0 percent usage) because of these scalable traits. Sabonis does not need to lord over the ball on every possession, while teammates remain stagnant viewers. He fosters an impact in other ways, comfortably serving as an adaptive, linking player, and aiding actions/sets.
He’s crafty and precise initiating dribble hand-offs, ensuring they are purposeful and not just action for the sake of action, swirling the ball between his palms until the proper moment arrives. Other times, he’ll commence a little pitch-and-catch game with someone to forge the advantage they’re both pursuing. It’s yet another example of the patience and credence this team grants him. Many of his assists stem from these seemingly easy hand-offs or tosses, but the build-up to achieve them, as well as his bludgeoning screens, conveys the skill they entail.
Even beyond those high-percentage passes via handoff, Sabonis is an excellent facilitator, which aptly suits Indiana’s surrounding personnel of shooters and cutters. When defenses key in on his scoring gravity, his shrewd approach yields benefits for the offense. Off the ball, he identifies openings and cuts into space as a roller or diver. These are long-standing hallmarks of his game, and further reinforce why he’s spearheading a borderline elite offense to open the season.
While the process to his shots has drastically shifted, the lone significant change in his shot profile is spurning long 2s in favor of triples. During his first three seasons with the Pacers, 14 percent of his attempts were between 16 feet and the 3-point arc, where he shot 41.6 percent, a rather encouraging mark to project extending his range. Now, he’s stepping back and prioritizing 3s. This season, only 2 percent of his looks are coming from that range, while 15.6 percent are beyond the arc, nearly double his previous best of three prior years in Indiana. At his current pace, he’ll surpass the 121 total threes he took in 210 games from 2017-18 to 2019-20 by game 53 this season.
Sabonis will likely not convert 42.9 percent (9 of 21, 2.3 per game) of his threes all season, but this retooled approach undeniably boosts his scoring efficiency, even once he regresses. Those long 2s are purgatory. For his career, between 16 feet and the arc, he’s shooting 42.4 percent, or 0.848 points per possession. To exceed that number, he’d have to knock down just 28.3 percent of his three-pointers this season.
The spacing boon the entire offense experiences also matters. The requisite room for driving and cutting lanes or windows in which to fit passes can often be marginal. Sabonis being a reliable and willing threat from 22.5 feet rather than, say, 20 feet, is the sort of increased spacing that ripples throughout an entire unit’s offensive success by broadening driving/cutting lanes and passing angles.
Although five of his 21 attempts have been induced by a dwindling shot clock, he’s also confidently stepping into early clock 3s above the break. When you do that long enough and maintain a certain threshold of success (roughly 34-36 percent, I’d posit) with triples like these, the collective offense is going to reap benefits.
On a simplified level, the primary factor behind a Sabonis-led offense ranking among the top five is his three-fold excellence. He creates for himself. He creates for others. He capitalizes on the creation of others or creation derived from the scheme. Those, fundamentally, are the pillars of offense. Advantages and scoring possibilities must be fashioned and subsequently maximized. Sabonis excels at all three parts, and it’s why the Pacers’ offense is driving their 6-3 start.
Sabonis emerged as a bona fide star last season. His absence in the bubble and Indiana’s playoff sweep diminished some of the shine from that campaign. McMillan’s departure allowed for the hiring of a new head coach, one fully cognizant of Sabonis’ wide-ranging offensive faculties and arrived prepared to optimize and illuminate them. It won’t be long before the entirety of the NBA notices them, too.