Unfortunately for the NBA and its fans, we never had the opportunity to see Arvydas Sabonis in his prime while he was in the league. Even though he was drafted in 1986, it took him almost a decade to finally make his first appearance in the NBA as a Portland Trail Blazers member.
Sabonis was a outstanding talent
Sabonis came to the NBA at the age of 31, at the end of his prime, with several injuries that already started to slow him down. He was not the same player who made a name for himself playing in Europe, but he was a remarkable and skilled big man who played in a way NBA hadn’t seen before and still left a noticeable impact.
During their appearance on the show NBA Game Time, former NBA players Kevin McHale and Brian Shaw talked about Sabonis and how he could change the NBA if he came in earlier from the Soviet Union. Brian Shaw played against Sabonis in 1986, where he saw firsthand what made Sabonis one of the most outstanding big men in the world at that time. He argues that if he came to the NBA earlier, he would speed up the evolution of the game in which big men are shooting from the outside, a trend that is now in full swing within the league.
"Every bit as athletic as David Robinson. I remember him catching a couple of dunks over the back of David Robinson in competition. This guy was incredible for the Soviet Union. If Sabonis would've been here in his prime, he would speed up the evolution of where the three-point game is right now, especially in terms of bigs stepping out and being able to shoot out there."
Brian Shaw, via NBA Game Time
He started the evolution of the NBA
For Shaw, there is no doubt Sabonis had all the necessary skill set to be a great player, and his versatility on both ends of the floor set him apart from other centers in the NBA. According to Shaw, if Sabonis came to the NBA earlier than he did, he would revolutionize the NBA with his shooting ability and force other big men to defend on the perimeter, which wasn’t so common back in the day.
"He obviously still had the ability to drive to the basket, be a playmaker, and be able to pick n pop and stay out there at the three-point line and facilitate out there. At that time the centers were playing inside with their backs to the basket; it would force them to come out where they were uncomfortable and defend out there on the perimeter. It's unfortunate we didn't get to see him in his prime because he was really, really good. He was doing things at that time that weren't seen by big men in this league.
Brian Shaw, via NBA Game Time
Kevin McHale saw Sabonis play when he was a teenager in Russia, and he was immediately surprised at how great he was compared to other players. Sabonis stood out, and Mchale thinks it’s unfortunate that the NBA didn’t see him while he was in his prime because his impact and presence would change the NBA’s landscape as we know it.
"He had the size, the skill, the strength, and everything to be able to play. The evolution that you see now would started a bit earlier. He was really special, and the league didn't see him in his prime or anywhere near his prime."
Kevin McHale, via NBA Game Time
Sabonis played in the NBA until the 2002/2003 season, after which he retired from the NBA at the age of 38. Even though he was a shell of his former self, he had a productive NBA career in which his career averages of 12 points and 7 rebounds per game don’t tell the whole story of how great he really was. If you watched him play, you knew what McHale, Shaw, and many others talked about and why he is so respected in the basketball community worldwide.