There are lots of different ways NBA players can evolve. Some hone their skills bit by bit, incrementally improving across the board. Some learn to harness their physical tools by solidifying their understanding of the game's fundamentals. Some unlock unforeseen possibilities simply by adding one crucial skill to their arsenal. And some manage to do all of the above.
Even within that broad framework, Domantas Sabonis' evolution feels unique. In just his third year in the league, the burgeoning Indiana Pacers big man already bears zero resemblance to the player who began his career with the Oklahoma City Thunder. It's not that he's doing everything better. It's that he's doing everything entirely differently.
These days, most big men find themselves migrating further away from the hoop as their careers progress. Swimming against the current, Sabonis has gone the opposite direction and he and the Pacers have been rewarded for it. He is basically the reverse-Brook Lopez. It's hard to believe the same player produced these sets of numbers just two seasons apart:
Sabonis has gone from attempting a third of his shots from beyond the arc to taking 98 percent of them inside it. He's quadrupled his paint touches and his offensive rebound rate while nearly tripling his free-throw and assist rates. In terms of scope, rapidity, and efficacy, it's one of the more stunning stylistic transformations in recent NBA history.
Functionally, the Thunder and Pacers both wanted Sabonis to do the same thing: create space. But each team had its own notion of how he could best go about doing that. Hoping to carve out driving room for solo-album-era Russell Westbrook, the Thunder (mis)cast Sabonis as a stationary stretch-four who would camp out behind the 3-point line and quickly get rid of the ball on the sparing occasions it found him. He rarely made productive passes. His role was essentially to stay as far out of the way as possible. The Thunder were fine with him chilling out of frame so long as he could pull a defender out with him. In Sabonis, they saw a magnet. The Pacers saw a bulldozer.
We tend to think of floor spacers as players with credible jump shots, but that's a bit reductive. There's more than one way to open up the court. Sabonis, now playing center on a near-full-time basis, has grown into one of the league's most relentless, most physical, and most creative screeners. The new version of Sabonis doesn't draw defenders out to the perimeter; instead, he wipes them out of the play.
He never stops moving, never stops looking for an advantage he can create or leverage - be it for himself or for a teammate. Rare is the offensive possession in which he is not directly involved. Where once he stayed out of the fray, he now jumps into the thick of it and makes his presence felt in the most literal sense; he spends most of his time on the floor running around looking for players to collide with. Smacking into his wiry 6-foot-11 frame multiple times a game doesn't seem like much fun.
Watch Sabonis for a few possessions and you'll see a veritable ballet of screens and re-screens. You'll see him flash into the high post as a release valve and pivot into impromptu dribble hand-offs. You'll see him set back screens and continue on to set high ball screens without breaking stride. If he isn't satisfied with the angle at which he approaches, he might reset and come right back on a more productive tack, one that allows him to connect head-on and blot out the on-ball defender's daylight.
In this clip, Sabonis passes up a wide-open look from 22 feet but winds up creating a more profitable shot from 25 just a few seconds later. He may lack gravity as a shooter but he still finds ways to pump oxygen into Indiana's offense. Cory Joseph, the beneficiary of the pick-setting perfection shown above, has been tethered to Sabonis for the majority of his minutes this season; it's a big reason why he's having the best 3-point shooting season of his career.
That hasn't exactly been the case for the Pacers' other guards; Victor Oladipo, Darren Collison, and Tyreke Evans have all seen their offensive efficiency dip significantly from last year. But Sabonis feels good about the distinct two-man dynamic he's crafted with each.
"It's a different chemistry," Sabonis told theScore. "Me and Vic got something in the pick-and-roll, me and Tyreke got something, Cory ... (There are) just different kinds of things I try to do to help my teammates out."
Sabonis' path-clearing forays aren't confined to the halfcourt. There are times when he'll be running the floor in transition or semi-transition and won't even bother to look for the ball or streak toward the basket; he's seemingly unmoved by the promise of an easy bucket. Instead, elbows akimbo, he'll make himself a sort of lead blocker for whichever Pacer is racing the ball up the floor, ready to flatten anyone who dares to get in his way.
He's also become skilled in subterfuge and misdirection, particularly during a Pacers' set play in which he sells a step-up screen before quickly veering into a down screen for one of the team's two gunslingers, Doug McDermott or Bojan Bogdanovic.
Some of these actions, like the one above, are scripted. But most of them, Sabonis says, are done off the cuff. Pacers coach Nate McMillan - who calls Sabonis "probably our most consistent player" and "a guy that we play through" - gives the team's bench unit license to freestyle with the young Lithuanian as its hub.
"A lot of it is improvising," Sabonis said. "My teammates know how to play off me, and the main goal is just to get (someone) open, create an advantage, break down defenses. Coach likes that, especially with the second unit. He lets us play very loose.
"We have players with different strengths, and it's just (about) going at (that strength). Doug's a shooter, get him open. Bogie, get him open. All my point guards, get them going in the middle pick-and-roll. After that, just play, make reads."
A common basketball refrain is that the purpose of setting a screen is to force the defense to make a decision. Few players force defenses to make more decisions than Sabonis does.
Of course, those screening actions wouldn't be nearly as effective if Sabonis wasn't an offensive threat in his own right. For as much time and energy as he spends trying to spring teammates loose, he is still averaging 20.5 points and 4.4 assists per 36 minutes - scoring more points per shooting possession (1.34) than all but nine players in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass.
He does the bulk of his damage as a roll man. Send two to the ball or lag behind when recovering off a hedge and he will fillet you with his passing. Switch and he'll cook a smaller defender in the post. Play it straight up and he can still rumble into your chest and score over you.
Man-advantage situations present an overwhelming number of reads for the trigger man, but Sabonis has become expert at identifying the correct choice in a matter of nanoseconds - whether that means zipping a pass to the corner, kicking it out to an above-the-break shooter, finding a cutter slipping baseline, uncorking a push shot out of the short roll, or continuing all the way to the hoop himself.
Sometimes the situation demands patience. Sometimes it demands impulsiveness. He always seems to make the highest-percentage play.
Sabonis' game is inherently selfless that way. He does all the physically and mentally stressful grunt work to keep the Pacers' offense moving and he does it without any expectation of an opportunity to finish a possession. The ball often finds its way to him in the right spot but he calls his own number only when it is the logical, mathematically sound thing to do.
That selflessness, that instinct for making the right play, and that seemingly inexhaustible motor that lets him set wipeout screen after wipeout screen have all helped buoy a bench unit that's pretty light on off-the-bounce creators. It's among the biggest reasons the Pacers were able to not only survive but to thrive during Oladipo's injury absence, going 7-4 after losing all seven games they played without him last season.
Sabonis' dramatic role change over the past two seasons has been a triumph of individual growth but also a triumph of imagination. It's quite clear now Sabonis was never meant to stretch the floor. He was meant to clear it.