|Domantas Sabonis takes in Madison Square Garden (photo: Jon Lambert)|
By Andy Elrick
It may have been his first time at Madison Square Garden, but Gonzaga University freshman Domantas Sabonis has access to more insight than most of his teammates when it comes to dealing with the bright lights of Broadway.
With his first month as a college basketball player drawing to a close, Sabonis and the Zags, a perennial NCAA powerhouse despite severe limitations of size and location, traveled to New York City for the Pre-Season National Invitational Tournament (NIT) and a match-up with the University of Georgia at the world's most famous arena.
As confident as the 2.05m forward was, he would have to have pulled off something really special to eclipse his famous father Arvydas in MSG lore.
"It was an honour playing here, it was very motivating," says the young Lithuanian.
"It's so big and amazing and all the history. It's the most famous arena in the world. It was just really exciting."
He insists however that his father, who played at the arena numerous times as a member of the Portland Trailblazers, couldn't offer much in the way of advice.
"He has never really said much to me about it, just that when you are on the court focus on the game and not what is going on outside."
Sabonis has enjoyed a strong start to his college career, contributing to his sides 6-0 start as the first man off the bench.
"I'm happy with how I have progressed, especially because in pre-season it was kind of tough in practice and every day it just got easier and easier."
His move to the NCAA could be considered more of a risk than for most. Sabonis was already competing against some of the best players in Europe for Unicaja Malaga, but felt a move to the States was the right one for him.
"I just trusted Gonzaga's system and their coaching staff. They were after me to come to Gonzaga for a long time, and I just thought it would be better for me and my future basketball career."
|Przemyslaw Karnowski playing for Gonzaga University (photo: Mike Wootton)|
With his talent, experience and royal blood lines, Sabonis has already seen significant time playing in his home nation's youth set-up at U18 and U16 level.
"I've learned a lot because every summer you play against the best kids your age, and it helps because you see how good other people are around you, and it makes you work harder."
Though his latest challenge has taken him back to the pacific northwest of the United States (Domantas was born in Portland, Oregon) his hope is that all roads lead back to Lithuania, and a spot on the national team his father led to Olympic bronze in 1992 and 1996 and a EuroBasket silver in 1995.
"I would like to play for the Lithuanian national team for sure. We'll see, I will just try to work hard to make that happen."
If Sabonis wants to know what it's like to compete on Europe's biggest stage he need only ask a team mate.
For 2.15m Polish center Przemyslaw Karnowski, it's a dream that has already been realised.
The big man could hardly have more experience in Europe, competing in six different European Youth Championships, one every summer between 2008 and 2013 and earning a spot on the Senior National Team at EuroBasket 2013, where he averaged 3.3 points and 2.5 rebounds coming off the bench.
"It was a really great experience to be behind a guy like Marcin Gortat who is balling right now (for the Washington Wizards). He tried to lead me, and to teach me some of his moves and I really appreciated that," says the Torun native who also relished the opportunity to play against some of Europe's best.
"Against Spain, Gortat didn't play and I was the starting center so that was really a good experience just banging against those big guys like Marc Gasol and later Ante Tomic (of Croatia). They are very good European players and they play at the highest level."
Karnowski hopes his experiences at Gonzaga will help him contribute even more in the summer of 2015.
"I'm in touch with the coach (Mike Taylor) and hope I can contribute, I just need to know what his vision is for the team."
As for his team mate's famous father, the Polish big man knows he could be a wealth of knowledge on how to dominate in the post.
"I haven't met him yet." he says of the European legend.
"I'm too young to have seen him play live for the Blazers, but before I came to the States I knew who he was and I watched his clips on YouTube and I thought he was a great player. He could do anything on the floor and he is 7'3" (2.20m) and that's something that not many big guys can do."
NEWS AND NOTES
- When fans of European basketball think of the University of Maryland they will likely think of Lithuanian guard Sarunas Jasikevicius who played for the Terps from 1994 to 1998, but this season a European big man is making an impact in College Park. 2.10m Slovakian Michal Cekovsky (who has competed at U16 and U20 level for his home country) has helped lead his new team to a 7-0 start, contributing mostly on the defensive end where he's already blocked seven shots, including three in a win over VMI alone. "Checko is further along defensively [than I thought he would be]." his coach Mark Turgeon told the Baltimore Sun. "He still is just a little bit late. He altered some shots that he's probably going to block later in the season, which will help us."
- Spanish Power Forward Ruben Guerrero is starting to see some significant minutes for the University of South Florida. The 2.11m Marbella native, who competed for Spain at the U18 European Championships in 2013, scored six points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked four shots in a 79-65 win over Jacksonville. That in just his second game back from a groin injury. "We're happy we have him back practicing and being involved fully." commented his head coach and former Harlem Globetrotter Orlando Antigua.