The much-anticipated NCAA Tournament big-man battle between projected first-rounders Jakob Poeltl of Utah and Domantas Sabonis on Gonzaga ended with Sabonis scoring a technical knockout. Sabonis got under Poeltl's skin from the opening tip, while Poeltl -- currently projected to go 18 spots higher in Draft Express' mock draft -- looked physically lethargic and psychologically exhausted. Sabonis' domination of the matchup allowed Gonzaga to advance to the Sweet 16 in blowout fashion.
Poeltl had only five shots and four rebounds because Sabonis wouldn't let him touch the ball. He initiated contact whenever possible by pushing Poeltl off his spot and boxing him out. Poeltl looked overmatched, while Sabonis came away looking like a lottery prospect. It was a complete reversal of how scouts and draft experts generally view both players.
It was always a little ambitious to project Poeltl as a top 10 pick, though one game shouldn't alone kill his draft stock. However, this game really says more about Sabonis' strengths than Poeltl's weaknesses. Sabonis entered the game as a likely mid-to-late first-rounder, but showed that he belongs higher in mock drafts because he can compete against NBA level players despite his athletic limitations.
Sabonis is 6'10 with a tiny 6'11 wingspan, given his size. When matched up against the best big men in the NBA, he'll be at a distinct length disadvantage, which forces him to rely on positioning, instincts and hustle. Yet those qualities are precisely the ones Sabonis used to shut a future NBA big man in Poeltl down.
Poeltl is typically able to park himself deep in the paint on post-ups, but not against Sabonis. In the clip above, Sabonis outmuscled Poeltl to around 20 feet away from the basket, and Poeltl had no idea what to do. It was like throwing a breaking ball to a hitter expecting a fastball.
At nearly 240-pounds with non-stop energy, Sabonis is capable of fighting with big men as a post defender and can at least knock them off their rhythm. Even when Poeltl carved out solid positioning, Sabonis forced him into less than ideal shots.
Poeltl has two pet moves. He loves to turn into a right-handed hook shot, or spin back to his right for a layup. But Sabonis positioned himself to take those moves away, forcing Poeltl to go to his left. Sabonis even blocked Poeltl's final shot of the game.
Sabonis' lack of length and lateral quickness could inhibit him against NBA-level athletes, but he makes up for those weaknesses with pristine timing and positioning. That might be enough to make Sabonis effective on the next level. With more perimeter players occupying the power positions in the NBA, teams like the Celtics are getting away with playing non-shot blockers like Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger up front, so long as they're paired with feisty perimeter defenders.
Why? Shot-blocking is still a premium attribute, but it's not a necessity for successful defensive teams. Sabonis had a projected lottery pick in Poeltl gasping for air on the bench simply by using a combination of brute physicality and defensive fundamentals. That's often enough if the rest of the team can cover for his lack of athleticism and length.
Sabonis also scored 19 points in a number of ways. He crashed the offensive boards, dove hard to the basket in the pick-and-roll and nailed perimeter jumpers. He shot 4-of-6 while being defended by Poeltl in the game.
Sabonis' bread-and-butter is in the post, but he'll more likely be used in pick-and-rolls at the next level. He's one of those players able to find openings due to his fantastic footwork and patience. His soft touch just makes it that much easier to score, though he did miss one of the shots in the above clip.
Sabonis unleashed his jumper on Saturday, hitting both of his perimeter shots when Poeltl defended him. Few lumbering 7-footers like to leave the paint, so Sabonis' ability to step out on the perimeter makes him a more intriguing player.
If anything, that perimeter touch is actually crucial to his success. Low-post scoring is evaporating before our eyes in the NBA, and Sabonis will need to offer something when he's not engaged directly in a play as a screener. In fact, the Bulldogs avoided the post like it was the plague on Saturday, even though Sabonis down low was one of their primary sources of offense all season. That says something about their respect for Poeltl's ability to protect the basket.
It's imperative that Sabonis continue to improve his shooting. If he can, it'll force defenders to close out on him, which opens drives to the basket. But his mechanics are stiff, so he might have trouble shooting from the NBA line.
Regardless, his progression as a sophomore made him that much more of a weapon. His smooth driving style is evident, and he's crafty on the move. Notice the subtle ball fakes on the play he finishes.
Sabonis' game is much different than his Hall of Fame father. Arvydas Sabonis was a giant center that passed the ball like a guard, whereas Domantas relies on mobility and touch. But what he lacks in athleticism, he makes up for with his feel for the game. That's the one quality he and his father share.
It'd be wrong to simply vault Sabonis over Poeltl simply because of one game. Poeltl's size and body of work make him a better prospect, whereas Sabonis still has athletic and stylistic limitations. But Sabonis' domination of their matchup on Saturday shows that the gap between the two prospects really isn't that significant.