The main pieces were Ibaka and Oladipo, but Ilyasova and Sabonis were also nice sweeteners for the Thunder. Three games into the season, Oklahoma City dealt Ilyasova and a conditional first-round draft choice for Jerami Grant, making the starting power forward spot Sabonis’ to lose.
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In November, Sabonis looked to be one of the most promising rookies in the entire association, averaging 7.3 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists on 46.4 percent shooting from the field and 45.7 percent from deep, per Basketball Reference.
He looked like a different player in many ways from his time at Gonzaga, a traditional back to the basket post-up machine who was a nightly double-double and took 0.4 3-pointers per game, according to College Basketball Reference.
And it hasn’t just been his long-range shooting that’s taken a hit. Sabonis’ field goal percentage has steadily decreased in recent months, bottoming out in February by shooting 25.0 percent, including 0-for-12 from deep in seven games this month, thanks to Basketball Reference.
The Thunder’s desperate need for spacing has dragged Sabonis away from the basket often, taking away what was his bread and butter in college.
This season, according to Basketball Reference Sabonis has shot 33 free throws in 1,188 minutes, a staggeringly low number for a player who had a reputation for finishing inside coming out of college.
Despite being an above-average post-up player in college, Sabonis isn’t having nearly the amount of success in the NBA this season. According to NBA Stats, he’s ranked in the 7th percentile of the entire league in post-up points per possession.
When he does get a catch on the block, too many times he’s gotten knocked off balance and ends up fading away from the hoop.
In the process of locating on the perimeter so much this season, it seems many of Sabonis’ weapons meant for the painted area have eroded in favor of working on his outside shooting. He attacks much more off of the dribble, and is actually pretty agile for his size.
Sabonis is still adjusting largely to finishing off the bounce, the area of his game that needs the most work.
In the open court, Sabonis is often the first big out and running in transition. It’s also where the Thunder are best offensively with thoroughbreds like Russell Westbrook, Victor Oladipo and Andre Roberson.
He has great hands and catches everything, a must for Thunder bigs with Westbrook piling up the second-most pick and roll possessions per game, per NBA Stats.
When working with Westbrook in the two-man game, oftentimes he is the pop to Steven Adams‘ roll, providing a different look for the Thunder offense and manufacturing different opportunities out of the possession.
It seems that Sabonis’ niche in the league for years to come may be in being that stretch 4 who can grab a rebound and handle it well enough in the open court or attack off of a poor closeout to make a play for others or finish at the rim.
He’s shown flashes of the skill and court sense to do such. It’d also bode well for the Thunder’s current personnel with so many of the current roster thirsty for cavernous lanes to drive in if Sabonis can shore up his streaky shooting.
Defensively, Sabonis has been consistent in acting as a roadblock at the rim, at both the team and individual stats back him up as being an above average frontcourt defender.
Players are shooting 7.3 percent worse when defended by Sabonis than their average within 6 feet of the rim, and Sabonis is tied with Adams for the second-best defensive rating on the team with him on the court, per NBA Stats.
He understands the basic NBA rotations defensively and does a good job of staying vertical when contesting shots. He also has pretty good foot speed for a player his size, and uses it to recover quickly when beat.
With Sabonis, the Thunder have another piece to their puzzle.
That puzzle may be changing pieces in the coming years as general manager Sam Presti and the front office try to find the right mix to build around Westbrook, Adams and Oladipo but Sabonis has shown flashes of brilliance that would fit perfectly with that trio.
The Thunder player development staff is among the most heralded in the entire league, developing homegrown talent like Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Ibaka, Adams and Reggie Jackson among others during their time in Oklahoma City.
Despite being in a shooting slump currently, Sabonis has the potential to be another success story among that group. With a core of Westbrook, Oladipo, Adams and Sabonis, the Thunder can plant themselves firmly in the playoff picture for the foreseeable future.