They hit it off immediately, the American kid who grew up in the streets of Brooklyn and the worldly kid who grew up in Spain with Lithuanian parents and went on to play college basketball in the United States. They found their common ground in one of basketball’s most fundamental elements, the pick-and-roll.
“Oh, yeah,” Lance Stephenson said. “Me and him, we learned each other the first day of practice.”
“We just know how to read off each other,” Domantas Sabonis said.
Stephenson to Sabonis hardly has the cachet of Stockton to Malone, but what do you expect from four preseason games? Their chemistry was one of the highlights of the Pacers’ final exhibition on Tuesday, an uneven 108-89 victory over Maccabi Haifa at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and likely will be a major asset in the season that opens on Oct. 18 against Brooklyn.
It figures. Stephenson is a willing and accurate passer. Sabonis is a rugged screen-setter who’s blessed with good hands and peripheral vision, traits he inherited from his father, Arvydas, who happened to be one of the world’s greatest players in his prime. Domantas can catch the ball in traffic, score it with defenders hanging onto him, or quickly pass it elsewhere if necessary.
Sabonis finished Tuesday’s game with 12 points and 13 rebounds, along with a couple of blocked shots. He finished the preseason schedule with an average of 12.3 points on 50 percent shooting in 15.7 minutes per game, and was the team’s second-leading rebounder at 7.3 per game. Only Thaddeus Young averaged more (8.7), and Young played about seven total minutes more.
“He just knows how to play basketball,” Young said of Sabonis. “He’s always in the right spot, making the right plays. He’s going to be a big part of what we do.”
Pacers coach Nate McMillan confirmed that afterward, praising the 21-year-old forward’s basketball IQ and instincts.
“I really like him,” McMillan said. “He just brings a calmness to the game when he’s out on the floor.
“He just makes players better because he understands the game.”
He makes Stephenson better, certainly, and it starts with a skill that is one of the most simplistic in basketball, but also one of the rarest: a screen. Sabonis sets good ones, standing his ground, absorbing contact from the ballhandler’s defender, and then rolling to the basket. Some coaches never get around to teaching it, or emphasizing it.
“That’s your job as a big man,” Sabonis shrugged. “I don’t know. Growing up, that’s what you do, set screens.
“(Dad) always said, if you set a good screen, you’re going to be open.”
Sabonis scored twice on Stephenson’s pick-and-roll feeds Tuesday, although that point total doesn’t capture the effectiveness of their teamwork. Sabonis got a layup off it for an 82-66 lead late in the third quarter, and then drew a foul and hit one-of-two foul shots for a 97-76 lead midway through the fourth period. He drew fouls on other pick-and-rolls, or passed out to open teammates.
“He sets the screen, the pocket pass is there, and it’s a bucket,” Stephenson said. “And the team respects him. When he rolls, everybody shifts, you have all type of stuff open, so you have to make the smart play every time.
“He can catch it, he can pass, he can do it all.”
Sabonis talks of his father only when asked, but doesn’t try to hide the source of his “do it all” skillset.
“I got it from my dad, who was awesome,” he said. “I just try to play the game the right way.”
Sabonis came to the Pacers with Victor Oladipo – who led Tuesday’s scoring with 18 points, 15 in the first half – in the trade for Paul George. He showed promise as a rookie with Oklahoma City last year, starting 61 games, but his stats (5.9 points, 3.6 rebounds per game) didn’t capture anyone’s fancy.
His Pacers teammates took notice immediately once they began scrimmaging together in August. The new kid, who practically seemed a throw-in to the deal, showed a well-rounded game.
“I told you all from the jump he’s going to come out here and surprise everybody,” Myles Turner said, reminding of the point he made on Media Day before training camp began.
“I didn’t know how tall he was, and how strong he was. When I started playing with him I saw how skilled he was and the touch he had around the basket.”
Stephenson experienced it first-hand in both their two-on-two drills and fullcourt scrimmages. Although a couple of his passes hit the unsuspecting Sabonis in the head early on, they quickly got in sync. Stephenson’s size and passing skills make him the perfect guard to execute a pick-and-roll, which he demonstrated late last season by making Kevin Seraphin a suddenly relevant player for the Pacers. In Sabonis, he has an even better target.
Stephenson’s initial thought: Oh, man, this guy is good.
“He’s definitely surprised me,” Stephenson said. “I definitely underestimated him coming into the season. Our bond is excellent right now. He’s showing a lot. He’s doing everything in practice. First one there, last one out. He’s ready at all times. I love a guy like that.”
Arvydas, now president of the Lithuanian basketball federation, sent his son a congratulatory text following Tuesday’s game. It began at 1 a.m. in Lithuania because of the six-hour time difference, but it could have been worse. When Domantas played collegiately at Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash., games usually began at 4 a.m. in Lithuania.
“So, everyone’s happy,” Domantas smiled.
Arvydas plans to come to Indianapolis in December, when the Pacers have six consecutive home games. It’s difficult to project what Sabonis’ contributions will be by then. Given the early indications, though, dad will like what he sees.
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