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Getting to know Donatas Motiejunas and Thomas Robinson

Before trading away both their starting power forward and his 21 minute per game backup, the Houston Rockets boasted an offense as kinetically efficient as any in the league. They were predictably unpredictable, constantly improvising with beautiful flair in the open court, exciting audiences with a unique brand of razzle dazzle that will forever be popular among casual fans and most basketball aficionados alike.

But in the NBA, a team’s priorities go like this: 2) delight the crowd, 1) win the game. Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris were contributing parts to both, and now that they’re gone, two rookies, Donatas Motiejunas and Thomas Robinson, are the pair Houston’s selected to fill their self-created void.

Here’s how each can help as the Rockets look to force their way into the playoffs for the first time in four years. 

ROBINSON

The Sacramento Kings are far and away the NBA’s most powerful organization if you’re discussing their ability to power vacuum suck the soul out of a basketball player. Thomas Robinson is no exception, and to read too deeply into the first 51 games of his professional career would be a mistake.

His per game numbers are weak, and he’s yet to have a meaningful quarter, let alone a standout game. But that doesn’t mean he’s a bust or useless. Far from it.

I re-watched every one of his offensive possessions this season, and while turnovers and offensive fouls were frequent enough to justify his place on the bench, Robinson showed momentary spots of excellence.

Going and getting the ball isn’t Robinson’s problem (which is saying something in Sacramento’s shoot-first system). It’s the brief moment after he receives it where problems start. With the ball in his hands in a position to score, he struggled creating space, getting his shot off, and, overall, looking like someone with confidence.

In the post he likes pivoting to face his man with squared shoulders, then using his quick first step to try and drive by.  He’s molded the foundation of what could someday soon be a lethal spin move, but it’s not quite there yet. Here it is at its best.

After watching him struggle play after play with that spin, you watch him bully an opponent for position and wonder why he wastes his time doing anything elegant. Robinson is strong enough to establish himself literally beneath the basket, and for brief stretches he played like the chiseled bull he resembles, knocking guys around and catching entry passes that allowed the simplest layups.

His pick-and-roll game is promising yet nowhere near where it can be, or should be, with James Harden threading pocket passes and Jeremy Lin dishing unguardable no looks. Robinson is already pretty good at slipping into the paint even before the defense collapses, but half the passes that arrived in Sacramento were ill-timed, resulting in a sloppy turnover.

His first two points with the Rockets came on an open court two-on-one dunk. Expect that to be his primary method of scoring for the rest of the year. But where he’ll likely have the greatest impact is on the glass. Before last night’s game he held an offensive rebounding percentage that would’ve qualified for top 15 in the league had he played the necessary minutes to do so. He can board, and board he will.

 

MOTIEJUNAS

The Rockets probably still make their deadline deal if Donatas Motiejunas isn’t on the roster. But they’d be much less happy about it. In all the commotion of last week’s mini-blockbuster for Thomas Robinson, the prospect of Motiejunas receiving a major responsibility increase was perhaps the most overlooked bit of good news.

After a breakout weekend featuring two optimistic performances against the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards, followed up by a 13 point, seven rebound, five assist showing in just 26 minutes (he would’ve played more had he not been dead tired) against the Milwaukee Bucks in his first career start, this could be the classic case of addition by subtraction. (Rahat has much more on last night’s game right here.)

Motiejunas’ skill set is both rare and alluring. He’s a 22-year-old true seven-footer who appears more than capable of knocking down shots just the same as making finely tuned defensive rotations. Motiejunas has energy and is willing to rub elbows down low. As you can see on this pick-and-roll sequence, he’s neither afraid of the ball nor unaware of what to do once it’s in his hands.

On the defensive end of the court, in a game against the Wizards, here he prevents a layup by rotating away from his man to cover a cutting Bradley Beal. It’s almost fortuitous

Knowing it was the first start of his career last night, the Bucks ran Donatas Motiejunas through several pick-and-rolls on his very first possession. He responded by hedging hard then recovering back to his man, disallowing any positive action towards the basket.

 

Motiejunas wasn’t Kevin Garnett throughout the whole game; he made a few mental errors that you’ll rarely see outside of a high school game, but he’s a rookie and those will come on occasion.

(Midway through the third quarter Milwaukee ran two quick pick-and-rolls on the same possession with Ersan Ilyasova, Motiejunas’ man, as the screener. On the first he hedged, but on the second he drifted, executing no sort of defense whatsoever, allowing a wide open jumper for Monta Ellis to knock down. He was subbed out for Carlos Delfino one play later, though that might have been due to exhaustion just so much as it was defensive negligence.)

Offensively he was awesome early on, making the Bucks pay dearly with a corner three after they chose to trap Jeremy Lin on a pick-and-roll. He also flashed some nifty passing to Asik in the paint, his second assist coming on a dribble drive from the corner where he dropped off a beautiful one-handed bounce pass.

One of the easier ways to get him involved that the Rockets executed a couple times: a guard would race towards Motiejunas at the top of the key, take the ball then immediately use Motiejunas’ body as a pick. As soon as the ball was handed off, Motiejunas would quickly roll to the hoop in what basically amounted to a hand-off/pick-and-roll variation we could see a lot more of from both him and Robinson as the Rockets push forward toward the postseason.

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