Why Donatas Motiejunas Is the Houston Rockets' Third Biggest Asset
After James Harden, Chandler Parsons and a lot of money to spend on free agents, the Rockets next best asset isn’t so clear. Omer Asik seems like a decent option, but he is pretty much in his prime at 26-years-old, coming off his third season as a pro. Jeremy Lin is, for the lack of a better word, overrated. Patrick Beverly caused a stir in the playoffs by injuring Russell Westbrook and playing like an absolute madman, but he doesn’t project to anymore than a very good backup point guard.
Throw in wings like Carlos Delfino and James Anderson, who are good rotational backups, and young bigs Terrance Jones, Thomas Robinson and Greg Smith, who might be able to become average-to-good starters, and you have yourself a nice little debate going.
However, despite his lack of statistical prowess last year, Donatas Motiejunas is, in my opinion, the best asset on the Rockets’ roster today outside of Parsons and Harden.
Motiejunas appeared in 44 games in his first season in Houston, starting 14 of those games. He averaged an underwhelming 5.7 points and 2.1 rebounds, in 12.2 minutes per night. If you project his numbers out to 36 minutes a game, his numbers are 16.7 points and 6.2 boards a game, both which are solid to good. Also, Motiejunas spent some time in the D-League, where he absolutely dominated, averaging 20.3 points to go along with 9.7 rebounds in just under 35 minutes per game.
The most important things to remember with D-Mo is that he’s only 22 years old, he’s coming off his first NBA season, he’s 7-feet, 222 pounds and possesses a frame that can definitely add 15-20 more pounds on it. He’s got long arms, quick feet, good athleticism, a good motor and decent strength for such a young and thin guy.
Offensively, the sky is the limit for Motiejunas. He’s got range that stretches out to the three-point line and which he showed off in his first season by making 24 three-pointers in limited minutes. He has shown the ability to get position inside and to score out of the post with either hand, although he prefers to finish with his dominant hand, his left.
Motiejunas is incredibly crafty out of the post, much like former Rocket Luis Scola. He has displayed a wheel-in hook-shot, and a sky-hook, in addition to a couple Hakeem-like, up-and-under moves.
Another one of Motiejunas’ assets is his tremendous basketball IQ. Last season, he showed that he understands spacing very well, moving in and out of post position quickly to free up the lane for his teammates. When on the perimeter, he’s shown the ability to slide the arc and drift away from his defender when they’re in help position, as well as make quick reads on swing passes, that led to the best shot for his team. He’s a great passer, especially with the quick touch-pass or bounce pass in the lane.
Defensively, he’s a work in progress, but he has the physical tools and understanding of the game to not get abused by opposing bigs. By adding a few pounds and improving his conditioning, he’ll instantly become less of a liability. Houston was a poor defensive team last year by any standard, but they will certainly improve as a unit in the coming years, and I wouldn’t expect Motiejunas to be behind that curve.
Which Rocket on the current roster has the best chance to start at power forward next year?
Motiejunas’ biggest struggle in his first season was getting accustomed to the speed of the game. This isn’t a revelation, and this is something that has commonly plagued even the best European players who have come to the NBA. Some guys adjust and some guys don’t, but the way to tell if they’re going to is by looking at their physical attributes and Motiejunas has all the physical tools necessary to succeed.
Early in Dirk Nowitzki’s career, he struggled to adjust to the fast-pace style of the NBA. In Dirk's rookie season, at 20 years old, his numbers of 8.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in over 20 minutes per game were pedestrian, sparking at least one person to think “Why did we give up Robert 'Tractor' Trailer for this guy?!” Well, maybe no one took it that far, but you get the point.
Dirk played that season for a 17-30 Mavericks team (in the lockout shortened 1998-99 season), and still only put up a little over eight points per game. Even more shockingly, Nowitzki shot 41 percent from the floor and only 21 percent from three point range. His per 36 minute numbers were also worse than Motiejunas’, as he averaged 14.5 points and 6.1 boards.
In addition to his poor offensive numbers, Dirk was absolutely abused defensively that year, but he eventually was able to turn himself into a serviceable defender. More specifically, he was able to turn himself into a good help defender due to his great basketball IQ and a decent on-ball defender, with an increase in strength and further acclamation to NBA players.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Motiejunas will turn out to be as good as Dirk Nowitzki, but his ability to shoot the three, his craftiness in the post and his discomfort with the quickness of the game early in his career make for a decent parallel. How D-Mo improves from year one to year two will prove a lot as to what kind of player he is. Dirk was able to improve to a 17.5 points per game guy in a year's time, while also boosting his rebounding numbers up to 6.5 per game.
Of the Rockets six young big guys—Motiejunas, Jones, Smith, Robinson, White and Furkan Aldemir, who might come to Houston next year after spending last year overseas—Motiejunas is the best fit for the starting job looking forward. However, this kind of projection is useless in the fans eye today, with Dwight Howard and Chris Paul looking like they might want to make Texas a little bit bigger.
As the season approaches, and the roster questions are ironed out, the who fits where talk will get a little more serious and concise.
It’s interesting to point out though, that its rumored that Thomas Robinson has been dangled in trades this summer to create cap room, while Terrance Jones was similarly dangled during the trade deadline.
Factor that information in with Royce White’s mental instability, the fact that Furkan Aldemir may not come over, and that Greg Smith is definitely a more useful as a backup center than starting power forward, and it looks today like Donatas Motiejunas has the best chance (of anyone on the roster today) to be the Rockets’ starting at power forward next season.
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