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My Sophomore Crush: Donatas Motiejunas

With the 2013-14 NBA season on the horizon, we’re taking this week to look at the players we love who are headed into their second year in the league. For most, if not all, of these players, expectations are either sky high or at rock bottom. And at the end of the year, what we know about them will likely be far removed from what we thought headed into this season.

Donatas Motiejunas is the rare NBA player that somehow started his career while already on the downswing. Considered a tantalizing prospect for three straight drafts after his 2009 Hoop Summit coming out party, Donuts withdrew from both the 2009 and 2010 versions when being deemed a lottery pick was not enough for any single team to guarantee him one. By the time he finally stayed in for the 2011 draft, scouts and draftniks were already 3 years of exposure in, well past the point of salivating over something new and into the weakness pondering phase. Hence concerns such as a lack of the necessary strength to play inside, a perimeter game too inconsistent to play outside, and a questionable work ethic for anywhere arose.

Those concerns were especially damning when compared to compatriot Jonas Valanciunas. Not that Valanciunas was a complete player on draft night – far from it – but he possessed everything Motiejunas lacked. There were no inside-or-outside concerns with Jonas, a springy beast of a manchild with a center’s game through and through, no worries about commitment from a player who seems to derive unadulterated pleasure from the very mere concept of trying. Jonas leapfrogged Donatas in the informal yet universally respected Lithuanian 7-Footer Power Rankings, fully representing their contrasting natures, as Jonas was picked 5th in the 2011 draft while Donatas slid all the way to 20th. The trend continued when they both stayed in Europe for a year before finally arriving in North America, with Valanciunas receiving messianic fanfare upon descending into Toronto versus Motiejunas being greeted with no less than 4 competitors for minutes at power forward in Houston.

Donatas did indeed struggle with both rebounding and outside shooting in his rookie season – his 9.8% rebound rate is that of an average small forward, and he shot just 28.9% from three, which didn’t deter him from attempting 5.6 treys per 36 minutes. But he also displayed a lot of what made him intriguing in the first place. While his supposed attitude concerns thankfully didn’t manifest last season in Houston, watching Motiejunas play his brand of basketball easily lends itself towards believing he may have some. There are no f***s given as he brashly and audaciously seeks the rim, be it attacking a closeout on the baseline or taking advantage of a slower defender off the dribble, and he’s an excellent finisher when he gets there. He has a nifty little post game, decent court vision for a big and a Danilo Gallinari haircut, all of which add to a magnetic persona of nonchalant confidence, repelling to front offices but attracting to fans.

It’s not hard to imagine Donatas’ NBA destiny as a pick-setting, floor-diving big man. Of course, for that to happen, the shot has to sort itself out. Otherwise, there will be no closeouts left to attack, and no lanes to drive through. San Antonio aside, Houston may be the best place in the league to do so, with an organization-wide commitment to the long ball that has helped guys like Kyle Lowry, Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris an acceptable part of their arsenal. Motiejunas himself already has a picture perfect Houston Rocket shot chart, the mid-range shot all but eschewed, with the vast majority of his threes coming from the corner. His percentages have yet to spike accordingly, but it’s a good sign that he’s getting the right guidance.

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Houston’s power forward spot is virtually the only unknown on a roster with all-world contributors at the 2 and 5, an up-and-coming do-it-all small forward, two complementing options at point guard and a litany of bench shooters. Between an Omer Asik-Dwight Howard twin towers constellation, fellow sophomore Terrence Jones, yet another Daryl Morey trade, or Kevin McHale just ignoring the position outright and going with four perimeter players, there are several ways it could develop. But whether he cracks the starting lineup, plays a bench role, or finds himself elsewhere, Motiejunas the Player is far enough away from the shadow of Motiejunas the Draft Prospect to thrive on his own merit.

Statistical support for this story from NBA.com

Noam Schiller

Noam Schiller lives in Jerusalem, where he sifts through League Pass Broadband delay and insomnia in a misguided effort to watch as much basketball as possible. He usually fails miserably, but is entertained nonetheless. He prefers passing big men to rebounding guards but sees no reason why he should have to compromise on any of them.

  • RollingWave

    Great write up, yeah, Donuts is an intriguing guy in terms of skill set, the problem is general as you listed, and perhaps even more so that his defense was a disaster, which isn’t strange for a rookie but he showed more red flags than most in terms of skill set on that end, with a very bad base which gives him a lot of problem in terms of boxing out and even just keeping him balance (he falls around like a Yao Ming / Shawn Bradley) while not having a long enough wingspan to challenge shots as much you would expect of a 7 footer.

    Having said that, he has displayed considerably better box out / rebounding so far in the pre-season (small sample size alert obviously.) however the shooting remains very inconsistent, he needs to be a consistent 3 shooter and that would make him a very intriguing offensive player, since indeed his old school post moves + very good passing for a big and running at an amazing speed for a 7 footer is very intriguing