Domantas Sabonis passes the ball (edited version of photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Domantas Sabonis and the art of a perfect pass

Slow big men need to be supremely skilled to be effective on the floor. Domantas Sabonis has proven that his passing is supreme.

Baseball coaches preach situational awareness. No matter how many outs there are or which bases are occupied, it is imperative that a fielder knows exactly where they are going to throw the ball should it be hit to them. Domantas Sabonis has the basketball equivalent of this skill.

When the ball comes to Sabonis, he knows where his options are and what he can do with it. He knows exactly where his teammates are going to be before he receives the ball, and it allows him to deliver accurate, on-time passes to his fellow Pacers within the flow of the offense:

You may not have seen it live, but Domantas Sabonis embodied the baseball player analogy perfectly on this possession. He catches the ball rolling toward the rim at the same time that TJ Leaf was supposed to be setting an off-ball screen for Cory Joseph. Domas knows that the next step in this set for him is passing the ball to the open man that results from that action, so he turns his head and is already looking to the corner the second he catches the ball:

domantas sabonis head turn

But when he looks, nothing is there. Leaf is in the way of the pass to the corner. Fortunately, Sabonis knows that two defenders clamped down on Tyreke Evans (see above photo), so he is aware that if he bides his time, someone will be open. He takes one dribble, Cory Joseph fills the wing and takes Kyrie Irving with him, and suddenly Sabonis has an easy dump-off passing angle to TJ Leaf:

TJ Leaf wide open

That kind of play isn’t just a once in a solar eclipse kind of thing. Sabonis keeps the ball moving all the time. The most, in fact, of any Indiana Pacers player – Sabonis’ 42 passes per game is actually the highest number on the Pacers.

That is truly incredible when looking at his assists numbers. He is 4th on the team in assists per game, yet first in passes. That’s how he is integral he is to the success of the offense – he keeps the ball moving more than just as a setup man. He understands the value of getting the defense to move, and he does so by flinging the ball around like a hot potato.

Ball movement is contagious. When you get it passed to you frequently, you are more inclined to move it yourself. Ball movement leads to easy points. This formula (of sorts) adds another layer to the value Sabonis’ passing has on the offense. When he is in the game, 57.9 of the Pacers points come from an assist versus 55.6 percent when he is on the bench. The team has an offensive rating that is 1.7 points per 100 possessions higher when he is in the game – it is easy to see the correlation between the passing and more points.

72 percent of Domantas Sabonis’ assists are the best kind of assists: ones that lead to baskets either at the rim or from three. He recognizes the value of these shots and often seeks out ways to get his teammates the ball in these situations.

If the offensive set doesn’t call for a shot from this area, or the set is dead and no reasonable shot options have presented themselves, Sabonis is deft at creating these efficient shots for his teammates with some wonderful split-second decision making. Like this:

When Sabonis catches the ball, a quick sonar scan of the floor in front of him showed two dots: Chris Paul and Clint Capela. The catch – both Capela and Paul had their eyes fixated on Sabonis, and nobody was paying a lick of attention to Thaddeus Young under the basket:

Thad is open

Sabonis pulls the trigger on the pass and gets Thad the ball in great post position. Capela turns to apply resistance under the basket, but it is for naught, as Young has already begun his post move.

Here’s another in the moment pass from Sabonis that lead to an efficient shot:

Why do I love this one so much? Sabonis makes two perfect reads in a matter of milliseconds. As the ball deflects toward him off the rim, the Lithuanian has the perfect view of two Knicks defenders and Doug McDermott. He grabs the rebound and flips it to the elite shooting McDermott just inches from him, but that’s only half of what made the pass to an efficient shot so special. Look how as Sabonis makes the pass, he rotates his body so he can essentially act as a screen on Mario Hezonja’s closeout:

Sabonis pass/screen to McDermott

That moment perfect split-second decision making led to three points. The Pacers won that game by six. Who knows what the result ends up being without every little bit of Sabonis passing brilliance Indiana got that night.

Domas should make the Michael Jordan to baseball and play shortstop. Shortstops are the leader of a baseball defense, in charge of calling out the right throws and in command of all infield fly balls. That is the effect Sabonis has on the ball for the Pacers. He is making the right throws and calling out open men.

Domantas Sabonis graded out as an A- playmaker last season. He was in the 89th percentile of this category when compared to just his fellow bigs. With another offseason of improvement under his belt, Domas has made the leap to being one of the best passing bigs in the entire NBA.

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