Gonzaga big man Domantas Sabonis was instrumental in the Bulldogs’ win over Seton Hall, collecting 21 points and 16 rebounds. He’ll need to be as good on Saturday, when he squares off against Utah’s Jakob Poeltl in a marquee big-man matchup.
DENVER – Not many college basketball players can say they grew up rebounding for one of the best centers to ever come out of Europe.
But for Gonzaga forward Domantas Sabonis, that was a fairly common occurrence.
From the time he was about five or six years old, Sabonis and his two older brothers would rebound for their father, Arvydas Sabonis, the former Portland Trail Blazers center, and one of only two players – the other being the Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki – to be named a six-time Euroscar Player of the Year, an annual award given to Europe’s best male basketball player.
Domantas Sabonis file
Height, weight: 6-11, 240
Hometown: Kaunas, Lithuania
Notable: Averaged 11.5 points and 8.0 rebounds in four NCAA tournament games last season, and had 21 points and 16 rebounds against Seton Hall on Thursday.
Arvydas never pushed his sons to take up basketball, Domantas says, but the sport was so naturally woven into the fabric of the Sabonis’ lives that the three Sabonis boys naturally took to it.
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“We just grew up watching the game, and we all really wanted to play,” Sabonis said this week.
The 6-foot-11, 240-pound Lithuanian native has come a long way from being the little boy who first learned basic ball trajectory by grabbing rebounds for his father.
These days, Sabonis is building his own legend as he climbs his way up the Gonzaga record book with his formidable rebounding skills.
As Sabonis and the Zags prepare for their NCAA tournament second-round game against third-seeded Utah and their own rebounding machine, Jakob Poeltl, he stands fifth nationally in total rebounds (399) and seventh with an average of 11.7 rebounds per game.
The two Europeans have faced each other once. Last August, Poeltl and the Austrian national team traveled to Lithuania to play an exhibition against Sabonis and the Lithuanian national team.
Poeltl, who is listed at 7-feet, 248 pounds, was put on Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas for most of the game, which Lithuania won, 86-71. But he also found himself matched up against Sabonis at one point.
“He actually hit a three in my face,” Poeltl said. “I hit one right back at him, so it was a fun game. He had a good game and I myself had a pretty good game, too.”
That one encounter taught each player a little about the other.
“He’s very versatile as a big man, he likes to drive it a lot,” Sabonis said when asked to size up his opponent. “He’s a lot taller and longer, and he blocks more shots than me and he might be a bigger threat on defense. But offensively, we are very similar.”
Poeltl’s take on Sabonis: “I think he might have a little bit better mid-range game than me. But it really doesn’t matter. We both have our strengths and weaknesses, and I’m going to guard him as best as possible.”
Beast on the boards
Large chunks of the Poeltl vs. Sabonis matchup will likely take place on the boards, where Sabonis has had a lot of success this season.
Sabonis is coming off his 21st double-double of the year — a 21-point, 16-rebound effort against Seton Hall on Thursday.
Even though he’s a first-year starter, Sabonis has already amassed 666 career rebounds and is tied with Jim Dixon (1962-63) for ninth place on the Zags all-time rebounding list.
The sophomore forward is pulling down boards at record pace, and his growth this year from role player into the leading rebounder and all-around scoring threat, is a big reason why the Zags have caught fire in the postseason.
“He’s the best rebounder I’ve ever coached, and one of the best rebounders I’ve ever seen in college,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who has coached the likes of Kelly Olynyk, Elias Harris and Cory Violette.
Sabonis’ rebounding skills will certainly be put to the test on Saturday in what’s being billed as a rare college basketball battle of NBA-caliber big men.
“The game has changed,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “Typically, the guards are the ones shining. We need some of that to happen as well, but this is unique, having a couple of true throwback five-men that are the heads of their respective snakes.”
Poeltl, also a sophomore, was voted the Pac-12’s player of the year, and he leads the Utes with 9.2 rebounds and 17.6 points per game.
Sabonis and Poeltl say they are eager to embrace the challenge of facing one another, but also don’t want to make the game about them.
“I’m going to take it like any other game. He’s a great player. He’s very talented. I played against him before. I know he’s good and I’m going to have to work a lot,” Sabonis said.
Future leader of the Zags
Rebounding dominance aside, the Zags have big plans for their star sophomore forward – if he returns, of course.
The question of whether Sabonis will jump to the NBA or return for his junior season looms larger as the postseason wears on, but when asked this week about whether he’ll return for his junior season, Sabonis said, “I haven’t thought about it at all” and emphasized that he’s focused entirely on preparing to face Gonzaga’s next opponent.
The Bulldogs coaches are hoping to groom Sabonis into Gonzaga’s de facto leader. It’s a role they’ve tried to steer him toward this season in a locker room that doesn’t have as many natural leaders as Few has had in the past.
“I knew coming in that we had a group that was not our best group at leadership, so I knew that myself and the staff were going to have to provide as much of that as we possibly could and hopefully grow some of those other pieces,” Few said. “We’re trying to grow Domas into it. I think he’s got the most potential. He’s so respected in every facet.
“He’s tough, smart, he doesn’t miss any details of what we’re doing offensively or defensively, and he’s the hardest worker we’ve got.”
That work ethic is another hallmark of Sabonis’ basketball pedigree. Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd observes that kids raised by former basketball pros often “have kinda had a blueprint modeled for them their whole life.”
“He came in with incredible work ethic. His dad told him: ‘When you come to the States, you’re going to work. You’re not just going for a vacation,’” Lloyd said. “And he’s exemplified that. He’s one of the hardest working kids we’ve ever had.”
Sabonis can be fiery on the court, yelling self-encouragement after he makes big plays, often thumping his chest or pumping his fists. His challenge, then, is to try to transfer that on-court presence off the floor as well.
“Off the court, it’s not very natural,” Sabonis says. “I’m more of a quiet guy, but I have to change it a bit and become a little more vocal off the court because a lot of my teammates respect me, and I have to show them, just like I do on the court, that I’m someone who can be there for them.”
Lloyd thinks it’s a role Sabonis will grow into naturally as he matures.
“I think it’s all within him, but he’s always played with older guys and he’s never had to access that,” Lloyd said. “He’s always just fallen into place as a role player and followed the lead of others. He’s such a good person and a good kid that if he’s on a team with established veterans, he’s going to let them lead and follow their lead.
“And now, I think it’s just experience and opportunity. He has ultimate respect from his teammates because they watch him on a daily basis and he’s finding times to be more vocal.”