For a variety of reasons, longtime Sacramento Kings fans are finally waking up from a nightmare many of them thought would never end. No individual is more responsible for the turnaround than Domantas Sabonis, a nimble, sharp-shouldered 26-year-old whose unique all around offensive impact has lifted them to a net rating that’s above several preseason contenders.
Sabonis, a two-time All-Star, has never been in a more mutually beneficial situation than this year with the Kings. The result has been the best basketball of his career on a team that’s projected by one forecast to make the playoffs for the first time since Barack Obama was a US senator.
If you took a look at Sabonis’s basic stats, few would stand out relative to his career highs. His points, rebounds, and assists averages have all been topped before. But now that he’s functioning as a full-time center in spacious lineups that accentuate his strengths, Sabonis’s true shooting, PER, and assist rate are all career highs. His production out of the post, though, is popping off the page in a borderline-transformative way.
Down on the block, all his skill, brawn, and feel coalesce to pulverize defenses. “He’s just a very special player,” Kings head coach Mike Brown said. “There aren’t many guys that have the skill set that he has around the league at that position.”
The Kings generate a staggering 1.36 points per possession when Sabonis posts up, which ranks second out of 616 players in Second Spectrum’s database of players who’ve posted up at least 100 times in a season going back to 2013-14. (Second!) When one of his post-ups ends with a shot, foul, turnover, or pass to a player who immediately shoots within one dribble, he’s by far more efficient than anyone else with at least four post-ups per game.
“I think I’m getting [the ball] maybe less?” Sabonis laughs when I tell him about these numbers. “Maybe I’m trying to be like, ‘I need to finish!’ you know? As the years go on in the NBA you learn more, you get more experience. So I guess maybe it’s slowing down and I’m reading the game a bit more. Some teams are throwing double teams at me, so I just gotta read it differently. My teammates do a great job of finding me, and I would say my job is to finish after they assist me.”
Sabonis is almost a full season removed from playing beside Myles Turner in a more congested environment with the Pacers, but even when he played minutes as the team’s solo big, Sabonis wasn’t nearly as efficient out of the post. His performance this season has been so otherworldly that it’s fair to wonder how much is real and sustainable. Sabonis ranks second in quantified shot making, which means there’s probably been some luck involved.
Sabonis’s stellar play also comes in the shadow of Sacramento’s decision to give up Tyrese Haliburton at last year’s trade deadline. A transaction so seismic can’t be accurately judged for a few more years—Haliburton is only 22 years old and already leads the league in assists—but nobody in either organization feels buyer’s remorse.
It wouldn’t be accurate to call Sabonis’s success a surprise. He’s been an effective low-post presence for several years. Strong, quick, decisive. But in Sacramento, with 3-point shooters everywhere, his post-ups are a crashing wave that has you bracing for its devastating impact and the ensuing flood at the same time. Every dribble is forward progress. Collisions between an upper forearm and someone else’s sternum are his love language.
“I was brought up—’You’re a big man. You got to play aggressive in the post,’” Sabonis says. “The post is a physical game; you have to get position and then get your space to finish. People always say you gotta get strong and all that stuff in the weight room. I feel like that is part of it. But a lot of times, like, there’s a lot of players who are strong but don’t have that physicality in them, you know?”
He only took six shots at Sacramento’s 153-point avalanche against the nets in Nov. But his post-ups were an indelible personification of the phrase “a man among boys.”
Kings guard Malik Monk finds it hard to process some of the plays Sabonis makes in the post. When I mention the recent bucket against Bucks center Brook Lopez (a Defensive Player of the Year candidate) that can be seen below, Monk finishes my sentence for me He moved Brook “Out of the way. It’s crazy. He’s 2 or 3 inches shorter than him. It’s crazy, bro. He’s so strong man.”
That brute force is elevated by a sly awareness of all the whirling parts and off-ball movement that Sabonis wants to reward with a pass. According to Second Spectrum, only LeBron James (in 2018 and 2020) and Karl-Anthony Towns (in 2020) have averaged more assists per post-up than Sabonis currently is.
“He actually looks to pass first, more than normal,” Monk says. “More than he should, sometimes. That’s what makes him so hard to guard.” Players cut with more intention and set harder screens around a big who’s willing to pass. The incentives are just that strong. Rookie wing Keegan Murray has scored 100 baskets this year; more than a quarter of them have been assisted by Sabonis on plays like this:
Look at what this wedge screen gets Monk against a Hawks team that’s solely concerned with stopping Sabonis:
Sabonis wants to punish his man as a scorer. And often he does. But there’s a purpose behind that hostility. He also hopes help defenders will pay just enough attention behind the play so he can feed a slashing teammate or whip the ball cross court to an open shooter. Several NBA stars know how to bend a defense. Only a select few can also break it.
Defend Sabonis with one player and he’s either drawing a foul or getting a point-blank look. Send help and either he’s still scoring or making a smart read. The only players who’ve been double-teamed in the post more than Sabonis this year are Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Jonas Valanciunas, per second spectrum. The Kings generate a whopping 1.46 points per possession when this happens.
“This year the team did a great job of getting a lot of shooters around me and [De’Aaron] Fox,” Sabonis says. “And I feel like that’s definitely helping. If they double-team me, it’s easier for me to kick out and [they] knock it down. Then they’re [also] more worried to double.”
How those coverages are executed is something Sabonis is conscious of and prepared for. He combats defenses’ game plans by operating from different spots on the floor, able to do damage with his back to the basket, facing up, or jumping out on the perimeter.
“Sometimes teams come on the dribble for double-teams,” Sabonis says. “Other times, teams come when I’m going downhill. A lot of times they come from baseline. So they’re just mixing it up, and that, as a big, always makes you… if you do the same thing over and over again, you kind of figure out how to [beat] it.”
Among the NBA’s most prolific dribble-handoff partners, Sabonis’s name appears three times in the top eight, with Kevin Huerter, Fox, and Monk. His partnership with Huerter, in particular, is gorgeous, seamless synergy—exactly what Bam Adebayo and Duncan Robinson had going for them once upon a time, except better. (Huerter is having a career year—the Hawks should feel sad—and his effective field goal percentage is a ridiculous 18 percentage points higher when he shares the floor with Sabonis.)
And when those dribble handoffs bestow a mismatch, Sabonis’s post-up power is placed under a spotlight. Opposing wings who have the misfortune of switching onto him might have an easier time trying to hold up the Washington Monument than keeping him from backing them down.
On this play, poor Sam Hauser gets inserted inside the rim. One minute later the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Smart, kicks Hauser out and falls victim to a jump hook.
Regardless of where you land on the trade that sent Sabonis to Sacramento—the long-term cost of losing a budding All-Star point guard like Haliburton remains extremely steep!—his play has been a best-case scenario. They have the third-best half-court offense in the league, largely because he’s around. (The past five years, they ranked 21st, 11th, 17th, 22nd, and 29th.)
He’s a multipronged weapon who makes everyone around him better. And it’s specifically those post-ups, which make you feel like you’re watching a sheet of sandpaper turn into silk, that help explain why.