Legacy is an integral part of the NBA. For some players, the desire is to create a foundation of memories and amazing play. Championships, records and accolades are the fuel for this particular drive.
For others, the desire stems from continuing a legacy.
Domantas Sabonis is no stranger to the latter. The challenge for the former Gonzaga Wildcat is attempting to balance the expectations that are inherent with star lineage and the patience that is needed for a rookie lottery pick.
Through the first six games of the season, Sabonis has shown glimpses of what made Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti pull the trigger on the Serge Ibaka trade. While the focus of that player transfer was Ibaka for Victor Oladipo, many around the NBA applauded Presti for adding Sabonis to the deal.
The Thunder as a franchise is in a pseudo-rebuilding mode after the departure of Kevin Durant. A luxury considering Russell Westbrook is fully entrenched for the foreseeable future. Other than Westbrook, the starters are all under 25 years old.
Sabonis is an integral part to the Thunder equation. If Oklahoma City is going find sustained success in the post-Durant era, Sabonis will have a lot to say about it.
So far in this young NBA season, Sabonis has given the Thunder reason for optimism.
In the first three games, Sabonis struggled. Of course, any rookie will have their lapses. Foul trouble and unfamiliarity with the increase in competition plagued Sabonis.
“There maybe some nights where he will get into foul trouble, he got some early fouls against (Blake) Griffin,” Billy Donovan told reporters during the early Sunday morning practice. “It’s going to be a process, anytime you’re young like that, there will be ebbs and flows.”
The West Coast back-to-back was the business trip the rookie needed. Prior to the Clippers’ game, Sabonis averaged four points, 2 rebounds and no blocks or assists. From the Clippers’ game since, his averages have seen a steady increase: eight points, four rebounds, one block and three assists.
The crowning moment was the big three-point shot Sabonis hit late in the fourth against the Clippers. It was a shot that finally gave the Thunder the lead, which it never surrendered. It was a shot that common rookies are hesitant to attempt.
“Coming out of the California trip and this last game (against Minnesota), he’s had three games where we’ve seen improvement, hopefully that can keep happening,” Donovan added at practice.
Statistics are just one part of the process. Like Donovan said, there will be ebbs and flows with young players. The box score will be all over the map as the season marches on. For Sabonis, it is all about consistency.
The team respects Sabonis’ game. Veterans like Nick Collison have taken it upon themselves to help mold the former lottery pick. Similar to the improvement from Steven Adams’ rookie campaign going into his current play, Collison understands the ability Sabonis’ possesses.
“He’s got a good feel on how to play already, he’s very skilled,” Collison shared at Sunday’s practice. “He has a good feel for everything that goes on on the court, he’s an impressive guy to be doing it at that age.”
While team expectations overall have been tempered to an extent, the improvement Sabonis has made in a few short weeks has given the franchise the optimism necessary to continue to play the rookie even through some tough stretches. Once the game slows down and Sabonis understands the way the game is officiated, you can expect the rookie to be vital to the Thunder’s success.