Domantas Sabonis is the Model for the Paint Defender Mike Brown Wants

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 15: Nic Claxton #33 of the Brooklyn Nets is guarded by Kevin Huerter #9 and Domantas Sabonis #10 of the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center on November 15, 2022 in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Neemias Queta is turning heads down in the G League. On Saturday night, the intriguing project put up 38 points and 18 rebounds, but the thing catching everyone’s eye was the fact he posted 4 blocks.

The Sacramento Kings are currently a below-average defensive team; they are in the bottom five in defensive rating and opponent points per game. More to the point—and the exact reason Queta’s 4 blocks sent a tremble of ecstasy down everyone’s spine—the Kings are one of the worst at defending the paint. They average 53.0 paint points allowed per game while blocking the fewest shots in the league at just 3.0 per contest.

Inside protection is collectively the biggest downside of this Kings team, so it’s no wonder many Kings fans and analysts are clamoring for Queta to be brought up for an opportunity. The ostensible lack of security surrounding anyone’s hold on the reserve center role heightens this feeling.

But let’s be honest: Queta is not coming up anytime soon to be given such a significant load. If anything like that is to happen, it’d be just as gradual as Queta’s overall improvement has been. There could very well be a place for him not too far down the road—next season, even—but it feels like a low probability outcome for him to assume rotational minutes in the NBA this year and make the desired impact.   

Besides, Kings fans should acquaint themselves with coach Mike Brown’s defensive philosophy regarding “shot-blockers.”

“I’ve never been a huge shot-blocking-stat guy,” Brown told The San Francisco Chronicle in February when he was Golden State’s unofficial defensive coordinator. “I just want to make sure your body is there in a vertical instance, or in terms of taking a charge, before someone gets inside the charge line. If you’re doing that, even if you’re 6-6, that’s a tough shot to finish over somebody that’s getting there early.”

Funnily enough, Brown is quoted saying that in reference to the contemporary discourse surrounding the Warriors at the time, which pinpointed the idea of adding another big man. It’s funny because it’s essentially the same complaint in Sacramento. So naturally, why would his thinking change? 

“It’d be great to have a shot-blocker, but it’s not necessary with the defense that we play,” he added in his comments to The Chronicle.

It’s likely the same thought: it’d be great to have Queta’s shot-blocking ability, but is he 100% necessary? Put another way, would his presence alone solve the issues facing the Kings’ defense?

It’s unlikely.

And, again, that’s apparently not the solution Brown’s looking for.

Rather than a Queta or a Queta-esque player with experience, the Kings would probably be seeking another big man that plays or can play like a center already on the team.

That center—who’s defense is far better than he’s given credit for and who is smart enough to make the most of his positioning—is Domantas Sabonis.

No, he doesn’t block shots, he isn’t a wide-bodied brick wall, and nor is he able to shut down multiple positions, but Domas has played some exemplary on-a-string defense this year. This is particularly true of his last three games.

The best of all his examples can be seen in three instances when Ja Morant tried to get to the rim and/or flail for a whistle. That’s because when Memphis’ star came at Domas, the big man maintained excellent vertical positioning (i.e. keeping his hands and body straight up) to contest and make the shot as difficult as possible.

Here, he’s backpedaling in controlled fashion, stopping when Morant does and keeping his hand in the offensive player’s face the whole time to help force the miss. 

In another instance, he uses the baseline to his advantage as Morant is unable to pickup any downhill speed which forces him to try and get a shot up with Sabonis’ hand up; the Grizzlies guard obviously plays for the foul, but Sabonis’ positioning and correct use of hands do not give the refs the opportunity to blow the whistle.

And here, as Morant drives from the perimeter wing, Domas slides from the high post to meet the driver with excellent defensive positioning and, again, gets up a great contest that neither allows a foul whistle nor a make.

Sabonis also protected the inside against Dillon Brooks, once in transition and another in the half court when the big had to switch onto the smaller player. In those moments, his defensive execution was awesome.

In Memphis, he was forced to guard a lot of smaller players off the switch and mostly by himself, but against the Hawks, Sabonis showed his paint defense when the inside gets crowded with bodies.

Here, Sabonis provides great help that, along with Keegan Murray on the other side, stops Dejounte Murray and forces him to pass. Because Domas keeps himself deep enough, he’s still able slide over and defend the roll man, forcing the miss.

Though credit goes to Davion Mitchell for drawing an offensive foul, here, Sabonis again plays the pick and roll nicely by sliding into any potential lane for the ball handler while still engaging his man.

At the same time as being able to play some tremendous defense down low when faced with smaller players attacking him, Sabonis continues making trouble for other bigs, too. 

Here, Steven Adams can do nothing but try to get up a hook shot that he’s unable to convert, and here, after crashing towards the perimeter to potentially close out on a perimeter look, Al Horford pump fakes and drives, which Sabonis stays with, moving with the Boston big man to smother his layup attempt.

Above is not merely a list of some defensive moments for Domas, but they help explain why over the past three games the Kings have allowed less paint points at 46.7 per game despite a slightly lower average in blocks at 2.7 per game.

When Mike Brown talks about using positioning, timing, and fundamentals to generate “a tough shot,” Sabonis has been one of the prominent models for that level of execution on this Kings team.

In terms of his backup or the stretches when Sabonis is resting, Brown is likely continuing to preach and teach the same lessons in order to produce the on-a-string defense that can defend the inside. He’s a coach who has faith in guys, and that’s immensely more true for players he has a previous history with, such as Chimezie Metu, the current backup 5.

Can Metu progress enough in terms of awareness and positioning to be more impactful? 

It’s hard to say.

Can Mike Brown teach Metu or anyone to execute better?

If anyone can it’s probably coach Brown, who transformed the Warriors from a really good defense to a super defense. And the outlook is all the better knowing Metu’s—or whoever’s—teammate is Domantas Sabonis, who should be able to impart some knowledge.

None of this is to say Sabonis is an all defensive team candidate, that Metu is the answer at the backup 5, or that Queta is a downright silly solution, but it is to say two things about Mike Brown.

For one, Brown is not interested in the proverbial rim protector. And two, he knows he can essentially scheme up better paint defense that will improve, like anything, the better his group grasps the concepts.

More so than a rim-protector like Queta, coach Brown likely wants something more along the lines of another Domas defensively speaking.

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[…] answer from Saturday night as well as the signing of Dozier, the solution in Brown’s eyes—as noted in this space before—is not and never has been traditional rim protection and […]

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[…] early fouls on a pair of Morant drives in the first quarter. In November’s game, Domas had some excellent defensive moments against Morant, and while he bounced back later in the game for some vertical contests, the two early ones helped […]

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[…] highlighted before, Mike Brown isn’t looking for a shot-blocker. He wasn’t seeking one with the Warriors last season and it seems to be the same deal here […]

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[…] [ November 28, 2022 ] Domantas Sabonis is the Model for the Paint Defender Mike Brown Wants B… […]

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[…] [ November 28, 2022 ] Domantas Sabonis is the Model for the Paint Defender Mike Brown Wants B… […]

Dan Smith
Dan Smith
1 month ago

Agree with this analysis. Hope the team improves on D, as they get everything down pat, and grasp Brown’s concepts better & better each game. Would really like a lock down perimeter guy in the starting unit over HB, but may not happen till next year, through the draft or free agency. The first line of defense is containing your man at the point of attack, and that alone will make things better for Domas and help reduce our paint points conceded.