College basketball observers have spent two years searching for the proper words to describe Gonzaga sophomore Domantas Sabonis. Northern Arizona coach Jack Murphy may have provided the most succinct description to date.
“He’s an NBA player playing in college,” Murphy said after Sabonis sank 12 of 13 shots and scored 26 points in just 18 minutes against Murphy’s Lumberjacks earlier this season.
Murphy’s compliment may become fact as soon as next season. NBA draft boards, for the second year in a row, predict Sabonis will be taken in the first round if he passes on his last two years of college eligibility.
If Sabonis has made a decision on turning pro or remaining in school, he’s not ready to share it publicly.
“I have no thoughts about that,” Sabonis said recently in Spokane. “I’m just thinking about this team right now.”
“Right now” consists of the NCAA tournament after Sabonis helped Gonzaga roll past Seton Hall in the first round with a 21-point, 16-rebound effort on Thursday. The Zags’ second-round contest is Saturday against the Utah Utes (5:40 p.m., TBS) at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.
The prospect of the 6-foot-11 Sabonis battling against 7-foot Utah sophomore Jakob Poeltl is exciting for fans and NBA scouts. Chad Ford, the NBA draft guru for ESPN, rates Sabonis 20th and Poeltl 10th among prospects for this year’s NBA draft, should they turn pro.
Poeltl, a native of Austria, and Sabonis have played against one another overseas. Sabonis spent most of his youth in Spain after being born in Portland when his father, Hall of Fame center Arvydas Sabonis, played for the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers. The family also spent considerable time in Arvydas’ native Lithuania, and the younger Sabonis played for that country’s national team last summer.
“He’s a great player,” Domantas Sabonis said of Poeltl. “He’s very talented.”
Sabonis averages 17.5 points and 11.7 rebounds per game and shoots 60.8 percent from the field. Poeltl, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, averages 17.6 points and 9.2 rebounds and hits 64.9 percent of his shots.
Poeltl ranked sixth in the nation in field-goal shooting percentage through Thursday, and Sabonis was seventh in rebounding. When it comes to rebounding, Sabonis goes after the glass the way a starving teenager attacks a ham sandwich.
“He’s the best rebounder I’ve ever coached,” longtime Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “One of the best rebounders I’ve ever seen.”
Kyle Wiltjer, a 6-10 senior who teams with Sabonis to form one of the nation’s top frontcourts, is equally impressed with Sabonis’ rebounding.
“He’s just a beast down low,” said Wiltjer, who leads the WCC in scoring this season. “The guy just gobbles every single rebound.
“I always tell him he needs to stop stealing them all because I can’t get as many. The guy’s just a fierce competitor.”
Those who deal with Sabonis on a daily basis compliment him on his work ethic and attitude as much as his talent.
“He’s so open to coaching and so receptive to it and hungry for it,” Few said. “And then he’s got this work ethic that’s just insatiable.
“The guy’s going to give you everything he’s got in practice, go ‘ice up,’ get something to eat, study a little bit and then come back down here at 9 o’clock tonight and start shooting with Wiltj (Wiltjer).
“When you have that kind of attitude paired with a really, really bright, intelligent, quick-learning kind of mind, the sky’s the limit.”
Sabonis spent two years as a reserve in Spain’s top pro league (maintaining amateur status by not signing a contract) before deciding the college route was the best way to prepare himself for an NBA career. He chose Gonzaga over Oregon, Arizona State and Texas A&M, as well as a three-year, $630,000 contract offer in Spain.
Sabonis is taking full advantage of his college experience, earning Academic All-America second-team honors this season. The sport management major carries a 3.46 grade point average.
Not that Sabonis is faultless. Sabonis shares an apartment with teammates Josh Perkins and Kyle Dranginis, and the two agree the big guy is a great roommate and an awful cook.
“He tries to cook,” Perkins said with a sneer.
“His demeanor on the court is aggressiveness and just a ferocious attitude,” Dranginis said. “Off the court, he’s a goofy, funny guy. Likes to have fun.”
For Sabonis, “fun” includes long hours of hard work on his game.
“I think I’ve always had that (a good work ethic),” Sabonis said. “It’s in my blood. I want to win. I just try my best on the court to help my teammates.”
“His work ethic is right there with his skill level,” Perkins said.
Sabonis intends to make all that work pay off in a nice run in the NCAA tournament and, someday soon, a nice paycheck in the NBA.
GONZAGA (27-7) vs. UTAH (27-8)
NCAA second-round game
Saturday, 5:40 p.m., TNT, Pepsi Center in Denver
All-time series: Tied, 2-2.
Scouting report: The Utes are seeded third and the Bulldogs 11th in the 16-team South Region of the NCAA tournament. … In first-round games Thursday in Denver, Gonzaga downed sixth-seeded Seton Hall (N.J.) 68-52 and Utah whipped 14th-seeded Fresno (California) State 80-69. … The Zags, who won regular-season (tied) and tournament titles in the West Coast Conference, have won six consecutive games. Utah, second to fifth-ranked Oregon (the Utes are ranked 13th), have won 10 of 11. … Both teams have good size, play well at both ends of the floor and boast balanced scoring. … Senior forward Kyle Wiltjer, who can score from anywhere, leads the WCC with 20.5 points per game. … Utah has committed 20 turnovers in each of the past two games. … Going into Friday’s games, the Utes ranked eighth in the nation in field-goal shooting percentage (49.0) and third in fewest personal fouls per game (15.3). Gonzaga ranked fourth in 3-point shooting percentage defense (29.4), 13th in free-throw shooting percentage (75.8) and 14th in field-goal shooting percentage (48.5).
Howie Stalwick, contributing writer