Basketball bloodlines and why Domantas Sabonis might interest the Celtics

WALTHAM, Mass. -- You need only examine Danny Ainge's recent draft history to recognize that the Boston Celtics president of basketball operations likes players who come from basketball families. Recent first-round picks Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, and R.J. Hunter are all sons of hoops coaches.

If basketball bloodlines are important, then the Celtics might not find a more intriguing prospect in this year's draft than Gonzaga big man Domantas Sabonis, whose father, Arvydas, is a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest pro big men of all time.

Last week, Sabonis engaged in an individual workout for the Celtics, one of just four teams he was planning to visit before this month's draft. While he ranked 10th on Chad Ford's latest Big Board, Ford's most recent mock didn't have Sabonis being selected until No. 20, suggesting there's a chance the Celtics might have an opportunity at him at No. 16 or No. 23.

Asked where he might land in the draft during his visit to Boston, Sabonis said, "I have no idea. Every day they tell me a different thing. I'm just working now trying to get better."

Sabonis ranked eighth overall in ESPN's draft model projection, and his overall grade (85.8) was better than many projected to go in the lottery.

Sabonis planned pre-draft visits to the Phoenix Suns (first-round picks Nos. 4, 13, 28), Toronto Raptors (9, 27) and Utah Jazz (12).

Boston's three first-round picks likely contributed to Sabonis' decision to audition for the Celtics, but his father might have had some influence, as well.

"He's a big fan. His favorite player was Larry Bird," Sabonis said of his father, who played seven seasons for the Portland Trail Blazers after coming to the NBA at age 31. Domantas was born at the tail end of his father's first NBA season, in 1996.

"His favorite color's green, so he loves it even more. Just everything about the team, the tradition, the winning and everything."

Domantas also is familiar with the Celtics, thanks in large part to fellow Gonzaga product Olynyk. The two worked out together in summers past, and Sabonis noted that, "The whole [Gonzaga] team usually watches [the Celtics]. It's always on TV because of Kelly."

Sabonis is a strong, physical big man with an NBA-ready body and high basketball IQ. He has his father's rebounding ability and plays with a high motor.

Asked about his strengths, Sabonis said, "I can improve everything. Right now I think I can find my open teammates, facilitate, rebound, bring energy, play in the post."

The negatives? Ford's scouting report notes that Sabonis must improve his perimeter game and lacks elite athletic ability.

Sabonis said he doesn't have too many memories from his father's NBA days, but he does remember watching him at Portland's practice facility. He has noted how he didn't gain a true appreciation for his father's basketball accomplishments, particularly as the face of Lithuanian basketball, until he was in his teens.

Asked about coming from a basketball family, Sabonis noted, "It's pretty cool, having my father be such a great player. I'm really proud of him and happy. It's just awesome."

Sabonis detailed how he was born in Portland but grew up in Spain, then spent Christmases and summers in Lithuania. Asked what he considers home, Sabonis, who is fluent in three languages, laughed while offering, "Everywhere. It's confusing, I know."

How much did his father help shape his game?

"After every game, we would usually talk," said Sabonis. "He watched all my Gonzaga games. Last summer, I played for the [Lithuanian] national team, and he was there every practice. He's usually there telling me things I can improve."

Ainge has often raved about the benefits of growing up in basketball families and the additional pressure that typically comes from being the son of a coach or a pro.

And just how much can basketball bloodlines help a player? After Sabonis auditioned for the Raptors, Toronto's scouting director Dan Tolzman told the Toronto Star: "Just being around that high level of basketball, it just gets in there by osmosis. They eat, sleep and breathe basketball, and I think Domantas is a guy like that. His dad was one of the greatest big men of all time, and the type of thing he's probably handing down to his son in conversations and learning the game that way -- those are things regular people can't get.

"It's something you can't put a price on; he grew up with it, and it's something I think other kids would kill for."