NBA Bound? Why Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis Should Declare for the Draft

Domantas Sabonis was key to the Zags’ success in March and should be a NBA first round pick this upcoming draft.

If you want to understand how the Zags were a minute away from going to the Elite Eight, look no further than the triumvirate of guard Eric McCllelan, forward Kyle Wiltjer and center Domantas Sabonis. In the six games the Zags played in March (in which they went 5-1), the three players all took Ken Pom MVP awards in the games they played, with McCllelan earning three (Utah, St. Mary’s and Portland), Sabonis earning two (Seton Hall and Syracuse) and Wiltjer one (BYU). The combination of McCllelan’s streaky scoring and tough defense, Wiltjer’s offensive versatility and Sabonis’ post scoring and rebounding presence made these Zags tough to beat in March, and after Syracuse’s upset win over Virginia to earn a spot in the Final Four, it definitely makes you wonder what could have been possible had the Zags took better care of the ball in the closing minutes in Chicago.

While there is no questioning the three’s impact in the past month, one of these players will be the sole focus of Gonzaga fans’ attention and that is Sabonis. McCllelan and Wiltjer have exhausted their eligibility and will now be transitioning to professional careers in some kind of capacity this summer (Wiltjer could be a second round pick; McCllelan most likely will be looking D-League or overseas). Sabonis on the other hand has just completed his sophomore year, and still has two years left to wear a Gonzaga uniform.

That is if he wants it. Because to be perfectly frank, not only is he a much more sought after NBA prospect than either of the graduating seniors, he also is one of the Zags’ best pro prospects in a long time, and has a chance to be the Zags’ first First Round pick since Kelly Olynyk in 2013.

Now, make no mistake, Sabonis is not really a bonafide lottery pick by any means and this is a pretty loaded draft (unlike Olynyk’s where there wasn’t really a consensus no. 1). There is top “one and done talent” in Ben Simmons from LSU (the consensus No. 1), Brandon Ingram from Duke, and Jalen Brown and Ivan Rabb from California. Polished college scorers like Buddy Hield from Oklahoma and Kris Dunn from Providence. And high-upside European prospects like Dragan Bender from Maccabi Tel Aviv and Timothe Luwawu from Mega Leks of the Adriatic League. Without elite height or wingspan, and average to slightly below athleticism, there is no question that Sabonis’ pales at first glance in comparison to many of the eligible prospects who are expected to enter this summer’s NBA Draft.

Many college coaches would not encourage Sabonis to declare considering his circumstances. To most college coaches, if you’re not a lottery pick, the risk is too high and the reward is too great. Famously, Tyler Ennis declared for the NBA Draft though he was guaranteed to be a first round pick, but not a lottery one, much to the chagrin of his head coach Jim Boeheim. Boeheim argued that Ennis would go into a tough situation without much financial security if he was drafted outside the lottery. And, as much as I dislike the whiny Boehiem, he has proven to be right. Ennis has been flip flopped around the league and has probably spent as much time on a D-League floor than a NBA one.

But, Sabonis is a special player, and while his natural gifts and athleticism may not be “first round” worthy, other aspects of his game make him a great value that will not only be seen and recognize by a NBA team, but perhaps even utilized in some kind of playing role as early as next year. Sabonis is not a project by any means, and that alone will give him a lot of value to teams that are looking to build immediately competitive teams through the draft.

So, why should Sabonis leave and not stay for perhaps another “March Run”? Here are two reasons why Sabonis should stay not just for the benefit of himself but to the benefit of the Gonzaga basketball program as well.


Reason No.1: Sabonis’ stock is probably as high as it ever will be and there really isn’t anything he can truly work on in 2017 to make him a better prospect

I’m not going to pretend to be a “draft” expert by any means. I watch a lot of basketball, college and NBA included (I subscribe to NBA League pass). I will let other, more qualified writers (like here and here) determine Sabonis’ exact stock in comparison to other eligible prospects for this draft. But the fact of the matter is this: nobody in college basketball has raised their stock more in the past month than Sabonis.

First off, look at the numbers: Sabonis averaged 17.3 ppg and 11.5 rpg on 61.3 percent shooting from the floor and posted a 76.9 percent free throw percentage in 33 games this year. If you go into the advanced numbers, the Lithuanian looks even better: he posted a 120.0 adjusted offensive rating according to Ken Pom, with a 115.0 adjusted offensive rating against Tier A competition, much better marks than McCllelan (110) and Wiltjer (105). His 28.2 defensive rebounding rate was 14th best in the nation, and his 65.1 true shooting percentage ranked him 21st in the nation. And to wrap it all up, according to Ken Pom’s national player of the year ranking, Sabonis ranks eighth, putting him in the same class with other more heralded players such as Perry Ellis (who ranks 5th), Georges Niang (who ranks 6th) and Virginia’s Anthony Gill (who actually is behind him at 10th). In a game and professional league that is becoming more and more reliant on analytics and advanced numbers, Sabonis satisfies the requirements as a legitimate first round pick and possible sleeper lottery pick.

But if you’re one of those guys who doesn’t buy into all the stats (i.e. Seth Davis), then look at what Sabonis has done on the floor. His footwork is impeccable for a post player, and his bevy of fakes and pivot moves makes up for his lack of length and athleticism. Furthermore, his motor is non-stop and without a doubt, Sabonis carried the Zags numerous times this year emotionally, especially in big games such as the WCC Championship and in the NCAA Tournament. But the biggest crowning achievement? His defensive shutdown of lottery pick Jakob Poeltel of Utah in the second round. Poeltel came into the game as one of the best offensive post players in the country, as evidenced by his 17.3 ppg and 8.9 rpg in 34 games and 124.1
adjusted offensive rating for the year. But against Sabonis? The Austrian center was limited to 5 points on 2 of 5 shooting and only nabbed 4 rebounds, good for an offensive rating of 77, his second lowest rating of the year (his lowest was 66 in a contest against Colorado on January 8th). Despite giving up a couple of inches and some considerable weight to Sabonis, the Lithuanian pushed Poeltel off the block on constant occasion and made him a non-factor whenever he was on the floor. If critics needed confirmation that Sabonis could handle himself against NBA bigs, then they were given a rude awakening after his sterling performance against Utah (he also scored 19 points, nabbed 10 rebounds and sported an offensive rating of 134).

And that’s the issue with Sabonis coming back. Unless he leads Gonzaga to the Final Four next year, I can’t imagine his stock getting any higher. He really has done all he could do to prove that he can play at the NBA level. Furthermore, there is nothing major that he needs to work on that another year of college would help him with. He has played well against good competition in high-pressure moments (the WCC and NCAA Tournament). He has put up good numbers. He has diversified his game, adding a sneaky good mid-range shot. Yes, Sabonis is left-hand dominant, and the athleticism isn’t there, but I can’t imagine Sabonis really getting considerably better in those categories with another year of college. For some players, coming back made sense. Olynyk needed to get stronger and he could put time in the weight room to do so. Sabonis is already pretty strong and has a NBA frame, and that will get more refined with more round-the-clock training at the professional level. Team-wise, yes, the Zags would be a heck of a lot better with Sabonis. But individually? There really is no incentive for Sabonis to come back, and I think he will realize that and enter the draft with his stock so high already (and could even go up more due to his father being Arvydas Sabonis).

Reason #2: The Zags will be garnering a lot of talent next year, and Sabonis returning could clog things up and result in potential transfers.

While we still do not know Przemek Karnowski’s off-season intentions (he probably has more to gain by staying after missing the year due to back injury but you never know), there will be an influx of talent this off-season that will lessen the loss of Sabonis. Center Ryan Edwards, though limited offensively, is a big body that will thrive with more minutes. And furthermore, the Zags will also add Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams, a stretch 4 type who could play small or power forward who has already been practicing with the team (along with Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss who could compete with Josh Perkins for the starting point guard spot). But the incoming freshman class will include McDonald’s All-American Zach Collins, a 6-11 center from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas that is the 37th ranked player according to ESPN, and European prospects Killian Tillie, a 6-8 forward from France and Jacob Larsen, a 6-10 F/C from Denmark. Considering the Zags’ success with European prospects, it would not be surprising if Tillie and/or Larsen are better than their initial recruiting rankings.

Add all that with Karnowski probably back and somebody’s feelings will get hurt on the bench and that could mean a potential transfer at the end of next season. As solid as Mark Few is, he definitely has his issues spreading minutes out, and that has definitely had an impact when it comes to players leaving the program (though for the most part, this hasn’t hurt the Zags with the exception of Ryan Spangler, who to be fair transferred more to be closer to home than any beef he had with Gonzaga). Yes, there is considerable risk going with more unproven commodities to fill in Sabonis’ spot, but if Karnowski is back it should soften the blow and allow the young guys to grow. Even if Karnwoski is back, the experience returning at guard in Perkins and Melson will also help the post players as they grow accustomed to the college game (though if Karnowski is not back, expect some early losses in the non-conference slate).

Yes, Sabonis would make the Zags a potential Final Four candidate and he would be a Naismith-watch player at the start of the season. But, in this day and age of constant transfers, the Zags would probably be best served if Sabonis declared, and that way, they could determine roles in the post positions this off-season during workouts.

Final thoughts on Sabonis

As a Gonzaga fan, I have to think that Sabonis probably was one of the best frontcourt players in Gonzaga history, up there with Olynyk, Robert Sacre and JP Batista. In fact, I would go out on a limb and say he may be the best post player in Gonzaga history as no other player flashed his combo of efficiency and intensity on a night in and night out basis. Sabonis was fun to watch, especially as he yelled after And 1’s and got after refs when he felt he was called. He was a guilty pleasure to watch as a Gonzaga fan, and it is a shame I wasn’t able to watch Gonzaga as much as I wanted to this year. If I had followed Gonzaga as closely as I did in years past, I probably would have a poster of Sabonis in my classroom.

But, I love and know the NBA game, and Sabonis is ready and would be a fool to stay. And to be honest, that’s okay not just for him, but for the Zags. Sometimes you need to move on, and by moving on, Gonzaga can go into this off-season forming their identity without him with the collection of young, though unproven, talent on the horizon.

As a Gonzaga fan, I know that is scary. After all, this year the Zags were so close to snapping their long-time NCAA Tournament streak, and without Sabonis’ the Zags might have been in the NIT losing to Valpo rather than Syracuse. But all good things come to an end, and even though Sabonis leaving would be bittersweet, it is best for both parties involved not just for next year, but the next few as well.

Good luck Domas. I know I’ll be enjoying seeing you get after NBA refs on League Pass next year.

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Jayhawk Jump? Can Kelly Oubre Follow Andrew Wiggins’ Lead in the NBA?

Kelly Oubre (left) maybe didn’t capture Jayhawk fans in 2014-2015 like expected, but it was the right decision for him to leave after 1 year.

Being in Kansas City, Kansas Jayhawk basketball dominates college (and just general) basketball talk. People either love or loathe KU hoops, and their opinions of certain players can be quite intense. No two players have been as polarizing the last couple of years than Andrew Wiggins, the former No. 1 recruit out of high school, No. 1 draft pick and reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, and Kelly Oubre, a top-10 prospect out of high school who followed Wiggins’ lead and declared for the draft out of high school.

For starters, if you understand the KU landscape, the easiest explanation of why these two players generate so much discussion is they have been the antithesis of what KU fans “expect” from their players. Jayhawk players stay for multiple years. Jayhawk player develop in Bill Self’s system and get better by year 2 or 3. Jayhawk players win Big 12 titles and go to Final Fours. Jayhawk players represent the name on the front and not on the back.

I know…it’s hard not to laugh at this crap, especially considering all the issues going on with the NCAA and College Basketball in general. But in all reality, this is how 90 percent of KU fans view their players and teams on a year-to-year basis. They really believe all those characteristics are associated with the Jayhawks like “The Cardinal Way” is with St. Louis Cardinals fans. And in the minds of Jayhawk fans, Wiggins and Oubre represented the opposite of that. They didn’t stay for more than 1 year. They didn’t “fit” in Self’s system offensively. They both exited in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. And they were “perceived” as players who cared more about their individual goals rather than team goals (i.e. they declared for the draft even though they didn’t achieve much success in the postseason).

First off, Wiggins was a projected No. 1 pick and Oubre was expected to go in the top-20. It’s hard to say “no” when those are your circumstances, especially as draft classes and stocks change quickly on an annual basis. Before he played a college game, Cliff Alexander, another fellow KU recruit who was actually rated higher than Oubre coming out of high school, was perceived as a Top-5 to Top-10 pick. Less than a year later? He’s undrafted and fighting for a roster spot, his future most likely destined for a D-League or International team next year. You can’t blame Wiggins, Oubre or any other NBA player for going while their stock is high (though Wiggins of course had the much higher stock).

In response to point number two, wings have always traditionally struggled in Self’s system at Kansas. Self runs primarily a 3-out, 2-in motion that looks to get touches and points in the paint through their big-men, and it’s obvious by the numbers that Self prefers scoring in the paint than beyond the arc (i.e. traditionalist basketball coach). Case in point, in the past four seasons, 58.3 percent of KU buckets have been assisted. A pretty good percentage and sign for a team, displaying there is more of an emphasis on passing and ball movement in Self’s system. However, in the past four seasons, only 28.9 percent of their field goal attempts have been from beyond the arc, and they haven’t rated higher than 247th in the nation in 3-point attempt percentage the past four seasons as well. What does that mean? It shows that all that ball movement and passing is going primarily to 2-point shots and 2-point shots typically are the forte of post players since they tend to be closer to the basket for closer 2’s (nobody game plans for mid-range jumpers, unless you’re Byron Scott). That is not necessarily something that corresponds with the trend in play going on in the NBA right now and what is wanted from wings at the college level (i.e. shooting from beyond the arc).

So what can you take away from Self’s system? It means that you have to take big-man production with a grain of salt and give a little more understanding to wing players who may struggle initially. So, the Thomas Robinson’s and Perry Ellis’ of the world are going to look good playing for Self while Wiggins and Oubre may leave some to be desired. But it’s not necessarily the latter wing players fault, as it seems to be more of a by-product of Self’s “post player preference” offense (common in 3-2 motion offenses).

Despite an offensive system that doesn’t typically play to wing players’ successes, Wiggins and Oubre still succeeded and improved over the course of their career, even if it was one season. At the end of the year, against Tier A competition (Top-50 opponents), according to Ken Pomeroy, Wiggins posted an adjusted offensive rating of 101.4, a True Shooting percentage of 53.6 percent and usage rate of 27.8 percent. Despite an offense geared toward posts, and against elite competition (in 2013-2014, KU had the toughest overall schedule in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy), Wiggins became effectively “the Man” for KU and carried the Jayhawks offensively. To compare to No. 2 pick, Jabari Parker of Duke, though Parker edged him slightly in the same category (Tier A opponents) in adjusted offensive rating (101.7), he did have a higher usage rate (31.8) but a lower true shooting percentage (51.5 percent). So Wiggins did improve in his career, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that Wiggins ended up having the Rookie of the Year season that he did. He flourished as much as he could have in Self’s system, and he got out while his stock was high.

As for Oubre, he didn’t have quite the same success that Wiggins had, but he wasn’t necessarily the same prospect either (Oubre was always a Top-10 guy, not a Top-2 player like Wiggins). His offensive rating over the year was a lot lower than Wiggins (108.7 to Wiggins’ 112.3) and he wasn’t as featured in the offense as Wiggins either (22.1 usage rate to Wiggins’ 25.5 rate). But Oubre, started the year horrifically (he only played double digit minutes in 2 of the first 7 games) and then really came into his own in Big 12 play. In conference play alone, his offensive rating stood at 110.0 with a true shooting percentage of 53.6 and a defensive rebounding rate of 19.3, which was actually the fifth best mark in that category in the Big 12. And much like Wiggins, Oubre proved to be a menace defensively, with Wiggins being better at blocking shots (3.1 to 2.5) and Oubre better at swiping the ball from opponents (3.6 to 2.3). Oubre still has to develop his outside shot, as he only shot 32.1 percent from the arc in Big 12 play and 32.7 percent against Tier A competition (compared to Wiggins, who shot 36.8 percent in Big 12 play; though he did only shoot 30 percent from beyond the arc against Tier A competition). But Oubre offers the same kind of athletic, offensive and defensive flexibility that made Wiggins such a success at Kansas and in Minnesota his first year in the League.

One of the main arguments though against Oubre by traditional Jayhawks fans though was that Oubre needed another year to develop. Unlike big men, who have gotten better with more years at Kansas (i.e. Robinson, who blossomed as junior, and Ellis), that hasn’t necessarily been the sure-fire case with perimeter players. Yes guys like Frank Mason got better last year (his offensive rating jumped from 105.8 to 111.5 his sophomore season), but Wayne Selden saw his offensive rating drop from 104.9 his freshman season to 98.0 his sophomore season, last year. Sure, Oubre could have seen an increase in efficiency and production his second season at Kansas, but it could also have gone south, like Selden, a late first-round to second round pick projection at the end of his freshman season who looks like a NBA longshot at this point. Oubre has a NBA game, and while his skills need some refinement, he still did enough his first year at Kansas to merit a NBA team using a first round pick on him.

As far as the last comment from Jayhawk fans about neither Wiggins nor Oubre winning anything as collegiate players? I think that is vastly overrated when it comes to evaluating college players and whether or not they’ll be successful at the NBA level. First off, neither Wiggins or Oubre had complete teams when they entered the Tournament. Wiggins’ squad had lost Joel Embiid, who was playing like one of the best big men in the country, while Oubre’s team struggled all year along with a go-to guy, that amplified even more when Alexander was ruled ineligible for the remainder of the season after 28 games. Furthermore, in college, it is hard for one player to transcend a team over the top, especially in the one-and-done style of the Tournament. In the NBA Playoffs, the best teams usually wins because it’s a 7-game series. In a single-elimination tournament, it’s a crap shoot that is fun to see because of the upsets, but usually results in Final Four matchups that usually underwhelm because the best teams aren’t in the championship (i.e. Butler and UConn circa 2011 and UConn-Kentucky circa 2014…yes, I do not like watching UConn).

And remember these facts: Kevin Durant lost in the 2nd round his freshman year at Texas; Parker lost in the first round with Duke; Chris Paul lost in the 2nd round of the tournament his sophomore year at Wake Forest; and Carmelo Anthony wouldn’t have won a championship if not for Gerry McNamara going insane or Hakim Warrick blocking that shot against Kansas down the stretch. Throw a packing zone defense or have one player hit an insane amount of threes for a half and even a slightly-above average or even average can knock off a college team with LeBron James. You cannot blame Wiggins and Oubre for not winning it all in the college landscape. In the NBA? You have an argument, but not college where the rules (longer shot clock, no zone defense limits) and circumstances (single-elimination postseason) make it far too difficult for one player to carry their team to a championship.

So, despite what many “Jayhawk Purists” think (i.e. fans who still hang onto players becoming the next Jacque Vaughn, Kirk Heinrichs, Nick Collison, Scott Pollard, Greg Ostertag, etc.), Wiggins had a successful year at Kansas and it transitioned to the NBA, and Oubre had a successful season at Kansas, even if many Jayhawk fans might not admit it (do not point to the 9.3 ppg…per game numbers can be deceiving due to pace and the offense a coach employs, and neither really helped Oubre all that much last year, especially with the offense lacking direction and definition immensely at times beyond Oubre’s control). Will that transition to a successful season for Oubre his rookie year though? Can Oubre prove to the KU naysayers much like Wiggins did with Minnesota?

As of two Summer League games, Oubre is trying to make his case. He leads the Wizards in minutes at 29.5 per game, he is scoring 19 points per game and 9.0 rebounds per game, and showing flashes of brilliance on the defensive end, averaging 1.5 steals per game along with some highlight reel blocks. However, Oubre is only shooting 35.1 percent from the field and a ghastly 1 of 12 from beyond the arc. His shaky 3-point shot has been a critique from scouts of Oubre as well as his shot selection and that seems to be evident in the limited 2 game sample in Summer League. That being said, Oubre is showing the strong rebounding ability and offensive and defensive versatility that made him a weapon at Kansas and persuaded the Wizards to trade for him at 15 in last year’s draft (the Hawks had the original pick).

It will be tough though for Oubre to match the heights of Wiggins’ Rookie Campaign in Washington. First off, unlike Wiggins, Oubre is coming to a playoff team with a strong (but still young) veteran presence. With John Wall and Bradley Beal leading the way, and Otto Porter coming off a strong second year, minutes will be tough to come by for Oubre in the Wizards rotation. I would not be surprised at all to see the same growing pains for Oubre that Porter had his rookie year, where he only played 37 games and struggled to find minutes. The Wizards are looking to compete for a Eastern Conference title with Cleveland, and Randy Wittman has displayed a short leash with his rookies in the past.

But, Oubre has potential, and he could be a sleeper from this 2015 draft class. Though he certainly was a polarizing figure at Kansas (like Wiggins) and while some Jayhawk fans felt he was a disappointment, Oubre was a lot better than people thought last season and he left to be a professional at a good time, considering the circumstances (offense, Self’s history with producing NBA wings) back in Lawrence. Maybe Oubre and Wiggins could have benefited from another year at KU. It certainly would have been fun to see Wiggins or Oubre as sophomores. But considering the situations they both faced, it was obvious that the benefits would have helped the Jayhawks more than them as individuals in the long-term and that is a risk that certainly wouldn’t have been worth it for either of their professional futures.

I know that’s something Kansas fans don’t want to hear (i.e. a player cares more about his individual future than the team’s). But I know most Kansas fans (and myself) and even would be thinking about their own livelihoods too if they had a chance to accumulate millions of dollars immediately too, degree acquired or not.