On one side of the Atlantic Ocean is the talent of Arvidas Sabonis, the Soviet Union’s 7-foot 2-inch star basketball center. On the far side lies his potential, out of reach yet sometimes in tantalizing view.
Among the many he has impressed are the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, who gambled a first-round draft pick on him in June. They’re hoping that Soviet authorities might give Sabonis the chance to go the United States--if the Olympics permitted professionals to play basketball--and he could return to the Soviet team. But no such policy has been announced.
The agile 21-year-old, who casually dribbles behind his back and makes one-handed slam dunks off lob passes, has outclassed his competition in Europe and shown his boredom during the World Basketball Championships.
When the score is close, Sabonis is working free for his soft jumpers or hooks--both right- and left-handed, controlling both boards or making deft passes from the high or low post.
But when his team is 10 or 15 points ahead, Sabonis won’t run the court, hanging back on offense and defense and not bothering to get rebounding position.
“Sabonis’ big weakness is that he’s lazy,” said Panagiotis Yannakis of Greece, a late-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics in 1982. “And that’s because he doesn’t have enough competition. You can see he looks bored out there.”
Sabonis is no disproportioned, awkward giant. He is as smooth a ball-handler as any teammate and will attempt almost any kind of pass, from a full-court hook to a twisting behind-the-back bounce pass off a defensive rebound.
Atlanta Hawk coach Mike Fratello has watched Sabonis in the championships and is impressed.
“There’s no question but that he has a very, very high skill level. He can put it on the floor, he can pass, he has mobility, and he sees the whole court,” Fratello says. “Physically, he overwhelms his opponents because of his size and strength, so it’s not easy to judge him because there is no barometer to judge him by, except his team is a great team and wins a lot of games because he’s such a dominant player.
“How would he do in the NBA against a (Robert) Parish, Moses Malone or Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar)? It’s hard to say. He may have gotten himself into some bad habits because he isn’t challenged very much. He’s getting a little lazy on defense and maybe not working as hard as he should.
“You can’t reach your potential unless you’re pushed, and he’s seldom if ever pushed. There aren’t challenges for him to meet night in and night out. That’s why what NBA players accomplish is so incredible, because they accomplish it against another great player every time.
“If one of Sabonis’ personal goals is to find out just where he is in the world of basketball at the center position, there’s no way he’ll ever know that by just playing against this competition. The only way he’ll ever find out is to make the move and play in the NBA.”
Sabonis has said little about the possibility of playing the United States, except to acknowledge that “to play in the NBA is the dream of any basketball player. (But) it is not at all certain I will sign with an NBA team.”
Curtis Lavon Mercer, a member of the Israeli team who starred at the University of Georgia, thinks Sabonis’ enormous talent would be reawakened by meeting his equals in the NBA.
“He’s strong like (Artis) Gilmore, can pass like (Bill) Walton and he’s versatile like (Kareem) Abdul-Jabbar. But he needs to have some people dunk over him and get popped a few times. And then I think he’ll respond.”
Wayne Brabender, an American-born former player in European basketball leagues, is now an assistant coach of the Spanish team. He has watched Sabonis for four years and seen the young center’s development become slowed.
“Sabonis was already an outstanding player at the age of 17 or 18. He’s the dominant player in Europe but he’s not as good as he could be or should be by now, though he does almost everything well.”
Through the championships, Sabonis has provided striking glimpses of his ability, as he did against Greece.
Sabonis was the center man on a 3-on-2 break. As he cut up the lane, the pass from the side was behind him. Without breaking stride, he reached back, tapped the ball forward then slammed home a two-handed dunk.
His teammates have watched films of the NBA, where they believe their center would continue to succeed.
Forward Alexandre Volkov says that only a few other players of Sabonis’ size can match his coordination. “And they are (Akeem) Olajuwon, (Ralph) Sampson and (Kareem) Abdul-Jabbar.”
Guard Valdis Valters’ prediction was a simple, bold and intriguing one for every basketball fan in the United States.
“Arvidas Sabonis would be the best player in the NBA--right now.”