It was always a possibility Domantas Sabonis would go to college in the United States, since he declined to earn a salary in Spain specifically in order to maintain his eligibility. But it was nonetheless surprising when the son of the great Lithuanian legend confirmed he would be joining the Gonzaga Bulldogs for next season, after he was just given 521 minutes of quality pro level experience with Unicaja Malaga in the Spanish league and the Euroleague at age 17. In an interview with FIBA’s YouTube channel, he revealed the option to play for Mark Few’s coaching staff was made with the intention to work on his individual skill-set.
But before moving to Spokane, Sabonis led the Lithuanian national team to a seventh-place finish in the FIBA U18 European championships, which ended on Sunday. And he was dominant in the aspects you would expect someone who already played against grown men to be against teenagers. Listed at 6’10 and 215 pounds, Sabonis was an elite athlete for this level of competition, which translated best in transition, in the post and on the glass.
He was able to establish deep position on the block due his quickness navigating the baseline in order to set up on the opposite side of where he was when the play began and also due to his core strength on straight post ups with his back to the basket. Sabonis displayed very good footwork and decent touch to score at rim level but struggled against Croatia and Serbia, two teams with elite size, which lowered his efficiency at the rim to an underwhelming 61.4% on 57 attempts. He strongly favored finishing with his left hand; hooking over his left shoulder or laying it in when he turned left and throwing a little push-up shot when he opted to go right.
Sabonis drew fouls at a very high rate, averaging 5.4 per 28 minutes, but didn’t materialize it into a real significant plus for Lithuania’s scoring as he made just 23 of his 40 free throws. Though left-handed, he shoots his free throws with his right hand. He impressed with his passing, especially out of the low post to the weak side, and averaged 3.6 assists per 28 minutes, which was well above average among positional peers. He was a really impactful force on the glass thanks to his general activity and edge in athleticism against the average competition, averaging three offensive rebounds per 28 minutes, which ranked sixth in the tournament.
Sabonis looked great in the open court, sprinting very fluidly, and even flashed the ability to lead the break. On the pick-and-roll, he was a good screener who looked to draw contact and showed good hands to catch the ball on the move but didn’t really play above the rim. Sabonis proved himself a good face-up driver at this level, with long strides attacking from the perimeter and looking to dribble the ball low in traffic. But he struggled with his handle and passing on the move, turning it over 3.2 times per 28 minutes, with those two aspects accounting for 16 of his 29 giveaways in the play-by-play data.
His jump-shot was a legit weapon against the soft defense played at this level. Sabonis gets very little elevation and has a slow release but hit a high rate when left open. Like most left handed shooters, he doesn’t angle his body straight towards the basket but rather on a 45 degree angle. He hit 47% of his 49 jump-shots, including four of 10 from three-point range.
His core strength translated into tough post defense, even against players with bigger frames such as Marko Arapovic. And he dominated the glass on that end as well, leading the tournament with nine rebounds per 28 minutes. But Sabonis wasn’t a particularly impactful player on defense. He flashed his athleticism on a few blocks and playing the passing lanes to manufacture turnovers but was unable to anchor the talent around him into an above average unit, as Lithuania allowed the sixth most points in the 16-nation tournament.