On Saturday evening, Gonzaga coach Mark Few gushed about the unique mobility and footwork of Domantas Sabonis, the Zags’ 6-foot-11, 240-pound forward who glides on the hardwood with a gymnast’s grace. The sophomore had just outplayed Utah’s 7-foot center Jakob Poeltl by holding the Pac-12 Player of the Year to a season-low five points in an 82-59 win that sent the 11-seed Zags to the Sweet 16.
“He’s never off-balance,” Few said of Sabonis, who finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds and three assists in Gonzaga’s win over the Utes. “He just moves so well. I tell my kids that I call him the ‘big cat.’ He’s like a Siberian tiger, a 1,000-pound tiger. He’s big but he’s agile.
“He’s got the best footwork I’ve ever seen out of a big kid.”
That’s not surprising considering Sabonis’ pedigree. His father is former NBA standout and FIBA Hall of Fame member Arvydas Sabonis, who excelled in his prime with an agility that belied his 7-foot-3 frame. Few called the elder Sabonis “a footwork wizard,” and Domantas, who matured as a young player competing in Europe, utilizes similar tools for Gonzaga.
“My dad’s been a big part of it too,” Sabonis said. “He’s helped me with a lot of things, being aggressive and showing me little advantages I can use.”
His Bulldogs teammates are regularly awestruck by his nimble feats and uncanny movements.
“Man … that dude,” said Gonzaga guard Silas Melson. “I’m just enjoying this time playing with him, because that dude … he’s amazing to me.”
Against Utah, Sabonis’ sequences in the lane featured the rhythm and unorthodox approach of a John Coltrane ad lib.
Dribble, pivot off the left foot, pump fake, baby hook off the glass with the left hand.
Hard dribble left, spin, burst through multiple defenders, layup.
Cut across the lane, snatch the entry pass, hard pivot off his right foot, turn, contested jump shot off the backboard.
“He’s unbelievable,” said Gonzaga center Ryan Edwards. “You never know where he’s going to go. You never know what he’s going to do. He can shoot outside, he can take you in. He can drive you, he can post you up. He can do it all. He’s an unbelievable player. His spin on the baseline is incredible. You can’t do anything about it.”
Sabonis recorded his 22nd double-double of the season in the win over 3-seed Utah, which followed his collection of 21 points, 16 rebounds and four assists in Gonzaga’s first-round win over 6-seed Seton Hall. Such feats are all the more impressive when you consider he has been forced to play center, not his preferred position of power forward, since a season-ending back injury sidelined starting center Przemek Karnowski earlier in the season.
“I thought he was really impressive,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said after his team’s loss to Gonzaga. “What I was more impressed from his scoring was I was more impressed with his rebounding. I thought he battled. He was much more physical than he looked on film.”
Sabonis has continued to grow since his freshman season. Nearly 40 percent of his attempts this year have been jump shots, compared to 30 percent last season, according to hoop-math.com. He’s averaging 5.5 free throw attempts this season and shooting 77 percent from the charity stripe. He made 66 percent of his free throw attempts in 2014-15.
“[Sabonis] attacks from different areas, so sometimes I think he’s harder to double,” Few said. “He’s really expanded his game. He’s shooting 3s now. He’s driving from the high post. He’s a handful.”
Sabonis employs unique angles and has an underrated strength to pin his opponents underneath the rim and score. He’s hard to guard and easy to foul. Per KenPom.com, he’s ranked 26th in free throw rate among players used on a minimum of 24 percent of their team’s possessions.
“He just puts so much pressure on you, like foul pressure, because he can drive or post up,” said Gonzaga star Kyle Wiltjer. “And he’s very strong down there with pump fakes. You don’t know when he’s going to shoot. That’s a tough matchup for anyone.”
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, whose Huskies failed to stop Sabonis from scoring 17 points and grabbing nine rebounds in a November loss, offered his take.
“He’s relentless in his pursuit of the ball and rim,” Romar said. “He’s a determined scorer once he gets the ball. He’s very good at creating angles for himself at the rim. He complements all of this with a nice outside shot. He’s a tough cover.”
Everything begins with his rare agility. Although Sabonis learned to love the game while watching his father star for the Portland Trail Blazers, he played his youth basketball in Europe. His father arrived in the NBA at a time when European big men were hauling their massive frames and soccer-influenced footwork to the United States. Today, European power forwards and centers still thrive on a set of fundamentals many American post players fail to learn early in their careers. The American prep and grassroots circuits emphasize transition basketball and athletic playmaking for post players, as opposed to finer details emphasized overseas, such as disciplined footwork.
“I think that’s kind of like a basic that coaches teach us back home,” said Karnowski, who played high school basketball in Poland. “I don’t know how it is here. I grew up in Europe. I think I have pretty good footwork. [Sabonis] has amazing footwork. Poeltl has good footwork. You see other guys from Europe coming in. That’s one of the biggest advantages for us.”
For Sabonis, it’s also effortless. He’s not sure how he pivots so perfectly or spins and finishes so swiftly.
“I think it’s more natural,” he said. “I just try to read the defense.”
But he’s more than finesse, which too often is an unfair description that implies European big men don’t possess the same toughness as their American counterparts. That’s not Sabonis, though. He’s a wolf. Sure, he’s the son of a former NBA star. But he’s not some soft, entitled kid. He’s determined and fiery on the court. He’s relentless on every touch. Combine that with his pivots and pump fakes and it’s easy to see why he might lead Gonzaga to the Final Four and crack the lottery in this summer’s NBA draft.
On Saturday, he faced a 7-foot NBA prospect. And Poeltl looked like the smaller player. Poeltl could not match Sabonis’ skill set or drive. After the victory, however, Sabonis didn’t boast. He offered brief responses to questions about the matchup and a game that set up Gonzaga’s Sweet 16 duel against 10-seed Syracuse in Chicago on Friday. He’s often reserved. That’s fine, because his teammates and coaches can’t stop talking about the big cat.
“All you want is a guy with a heart like that who just goes so hard every possession,” Few said. “That’s the greatest attribute he has. It’s inspiring.”