For as much weight as his surname carries around the world, Domantas Sabonis entered the college basketball consciousness as the season's biggest mystery. While most of the other top freshmen spent their summers playing against each other on the American grassroots circuit, Sabonis was testing himself against adults in Spain as the youngest player ever to compete in Euroleague.
Sabonis could have signed a three-year contract worth approximately $630,000 with Unicaja, but he chose to play at Gonzaga instead.
Mark Few's Bulldogs looked like a potential Final Four sleeper even before they knew what they had in the youngest son of Lithuanian basketball legend Arvydas Sabonis. Gonzaga had three knock-down shooters in the starting lineup in Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell and Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer. The 'Zags also had a mountain of a man in the middle in junior center Przemek Karnowski, a 7', 300-pound import from Poland.
What Gonzaga lacked was energy and physicality in the front court. Hopes were always high for Wiltjer, and so far he's exceeded expectations by turning himself into one of the better scoring big men in the country. Wiltjer is averaging over 16 points per game and hitting nearly 45 percent of his three-pointers. He's the prototypical stretch four, but the reason he's not on many draft boards is because he lacks the strength to handle pro-caliber players both on the glass and defensively. That's where Sabonis comes in.
Nothing about Gonzaga's victory over Pepperdine Thursday night was easy, from the Los Angeles traffic that trapped the 'Zags and caused a 33-minute delay of the opening tip to an inspired effort from the Waves that had the game hanging in the balance throughout the second half. Gonzaga would eventually outlast Pepperdine, 78-76, to improve to 17-1. It might have been Sabonis' best game of the year.
Respect for Bulldogs
Gonzaga shoots up latest AP poll
Gonzaga was the biggest benefactor of a weekend of madness, moving up three spots to No. 3.
Respect for Bulldogs
If there was ever a night to show how deadly the Sabonis-Wiltjer pairing could be, this was it. Wiltjer did his thing, scoring 19 of his 24 points in the second half to ensure the victory. Sabonis came off the bench to go 9-for-9 from the field for 18 points and 12 rebounds.
If you haven't seen Sabonis play yet, you will soon. Gonzaga is projected to win-out according to KenPom, with the lone blemish on the schedule being an overtime loss at Arizona. This is one of the best teams in the country and has the chance to finally get Few past the Sweet 16.
So far, Arvydas Sabonis' kid is living up to the hype. He's averaging 10 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while shooting over 73 percent from the field. Extend those numbers out per 40 minutes, and Sabonis is putting up over 19 points and 11.75 rebounds per night.
A deeper dig into the numbers shows just how effective he's been. He's scoring 1.135 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports, which ranks in the 96th percentile nationally. His defensive rebound rate (23.7) places No. 56 in the country, per KenPom, and his offensive rating of 119.3 is in the top 150. KenPom's player comparison algorithm is comping him to Draymond Green in his freshman year. Not bad company.
Sabonis' shooting numbers are astounding in almost every situation. He's ranked in the 97th percentile nationally by scoring 1.2 points per possession on post-ups, per Synergy Sports. He's been perfect in 11 possessions in transition. As the second half of the pick-and-roll, he's scoring 1.263 points per possession, which ranks in the 85th percentile.
There's still plenty of room for his game to grow. He's only blocked five shots on the season. He hasn't shown his father's trademark passing ability yet either, dishing out a tick under one assist per game.
There's time for all of that, though. Sabonis seems ahead of schedule, and Gonzaga is primed for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Living up to that last name was never going to be easy, but at the moment Sabonis is doing about all he can to show he's a solid player in his own right. Best of all for Gonzaga, it appears that he's just getting started.