Rumors were swirling back in 2017 about how long Paul George was going to be a Pacer, and who Indiana was going to pluck from the Lakers and Clippers, as it had been reported that George was looking to "head home" to LA that summer no matter what.
To the shock of many involved, a week after Russell Westbrook had been named League MVP, the Oklahoma City Thunder added George to make them immediate contenders for the NBA Finals. The cost to acquire the star? A couple of role players: Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. The reviews of the trade were fierce and completely one-sided. It was an all-or-nothing move by the Thunder to get the four-time All-Star coming off career highs in points, rebounds, and assists. Trading away Oladipo, who they had already acquired from the Magic and was a budding prospect was one thing, but giving away a steadily improving big man in Sabonis seemed like the right move at the time.
A couple of years later, and Paul George turned into a bona fide MVP Candidate with the Thunder, but was dealt for a king's ransom of picks to the Clippers. George's Thunder tenure yielded two first-round exits and gigantic "what-if" attached to the two-headed monster they created.
As for the Indiana Pacers? Trading away Paul George has resulted in two All-Star appearances for Oladipo, and now Sabonis will carry the All-Star torch for the Pacers, being selected by NBA coaches to play in the NBA All-Star game in Chicago.
Sabonis's debut in professional basketball started young, but the stage wasn't too high for the then 16-year old. Playing for Unicaja Málaga and then later Clínicas Rincón, Sabonis flashed enough highlights and potential to be a high-level player that he was offered a scholarship to Gonzaga to become the latest in a long line of dominant Bulldog bruising big-men instead of taking a 3-year contract with Unicaja.
The NBA was always in the cards for Sabonis, but it wasn't with flash or mixtapes. Sabonis is stable, difficult to guard, and tough to get around on the offensive end. He stifled other big-time prospects in college and earned recognition as being a finalist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award.
Sabonis's start in the NBA did not go nearly as smoothly as his debut in Europe. After being drafted in the lottery to the Orlando Magic, he was immediately shipped to the Thunder, where his numbers and contributions floundered. Following another trade to Indiana, it seemed like this was the path his career was shaping to be, a much different trajectory than his Hall of Fame father.
Sabonis's defining trait of work ethic has brought him from the fringes of seeing court time to working his way into a top-caliber piece for the Pacers. Steadily building on his success and gaining more floor time, the Lithuanian ranked second in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season. With Oladipo sidelined to begin the season, Sabonis finally earned a starting nod in Nate McMillan's lineup. Adding Sabonis's services to the starting five helped Indiana to get to 30-17 without their All-Star centerpiece, surpass league-wide expectations of a regular-season collapse, and stay afloat in the East's upper tier of playoff seeds.
Now, the argument can be made that Indiana's centerpiece might just be their all-business center and not the high flying guards that surround him.
Domantas Sabonis's contributions have been noticed by Indiana. Before the start of the season, Sabonis signed a 4-year $77 million dollar extension to remain with the club. Immediately after Sabonis was traded to Indiana, he has rewarded their confidence in him. His debut for the Pacers was a 16 point, 7 rebound performance. A couple of nights later, he poured in 22 points and cleaned the glass for 12 rebounds. Three years later, and that same player hasn't left, he's gotten better.
37 double-doubles and a pair of triple-doubles later, and Sabonis was all but assured that he would be making a trip to the Windy City over All-Star weekend. He's consistent, versatile, and a major reason that Indiana is still competitive in a season where everyone expected them to tread water. His numbers point to his efficiency as well, pouring in 18 PPG on 53% shooting, a tick below 13 RPG, and a hair under 5 APG. A post-up game that seems out of line with today's three-point warfare has still proven to be fruitful for the Lithuanian who is silencing those who questioned his worth when he came into Indianapolis.
Whether Indiana or Oklahoma City "won" the trade remains a debated point, but at the moment it appeared that Sam Presti had swindled the Pacers. Now, the Pacers court two All-Stars with real ambitions at going deep into the playoffs. But for Sabonis, the All-Star weekend may be his chance to show some flash and get some deserved love from the players and fans that watch.
Domantas Sabonis will play in the NBA All-Star game on February 16 in Chicago.