Donatas Motiejunas’ rookie debut

I wrote last week on the Rockets’ waiting game regarding Donatas Motiejunas, explaining that they seemed to have all of the leverage in the current situation.  While in hindsight, successfully trading Motiejunas to Detroit would have been the more advantageous move, readers will remember that I was extremely upset following initial word of the transaction.

While doing some housekeeping in preparation for the new season, I’ve been digging through the archives from the past few seasons, and have stumbled across some gems.  I found a February 28, 2013 piece which was apparently written the night of Thomas Robinson and Motiejunas’ respective debuts.

As you might’ve guessed, Robinson set the tone early for his brief, disappointing Rockets career:

To begin, it is probably unfair to describe Thomas Robinson’s performance last night as ‘disappointing.’  It was his first game wearing red, and after only, I believe, two practices.  There weren’t really expectations.  But if we’re being honest, he didn’t look good.

Robinson finished the game with a -18, collecting three fouls in his seven minutes (to go along with 2 points and 1 rebound.)  After he checked into the game, late in the first, the team’s lead all but evaporated.  He did not return in the second half.

Motiejunas was a different story:

Motiejunas, on the other hand, dazzled, finishing with 13 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists in just 25 minutes of play.  Were it not for a few missed ‘gimmes’, the Lithuanian would have easily gone for 20.  I hesitate to say this, just because it’s so early, but I am fairly confident he will become an offensive star.  At this point, the only way I can see him failing to reach that expectation is if his defense/rebounding prove to be so egregiously horrendous that they keep him off the floor altogether.

He knocked down a 3, showed some nice hands around the basket, and drove in off the pump fake on several plays, on one occasion even spinning to the hoop.  However, the most impressive thing I’ve noted is how aggressively Motiejunas posts up.  There was one play which comes to mind where he beat his man down the court and pinned him right underneath the hoop, held his hands up, and caught the pass.  I believe he was then fouled.  This early, off-ball pindown is something very rarely seen in young players.  Recall that it took years until Rockets brass was able to program it into Yao’s muscle memory.

Motiejunas, of course, went on to become, at least statistically speaking, the most effective post-up scorer in the league in 2015.

I talked to Motiejunas a bit after the game, asking him what he meant specifically when he said he “wanted to develop skills no one had developed in their life.”  The first word he mentioned was passing, interestingly.

I repeat: this is a 7 footer with aggression, postup skills, range on his jumper, and the ability to drive with either hand who, when asked about by his coach, has only been described as “so hard working that we had to find a way to get him on the court.”  How can he fail?  Motiejunas seems like a sure bet.

It’s going to be interesting to watch his development.  We know what he can do offensively.  But when it mattered most, he was on the bench with Delfino at the ‘4’.  Again, the Rockets lost because they could not secure a rebound.  If Motiejunas is to become more than an offensive star, the 7 footer will need to gain his coach’s confidence that he can be dependable on the glass, at least enough to be kept in the game during critical moments.

Of course, no one could have predicted the back injury which ultimately may end up limiting D-Mo’s potential. Setting that variable aside, rebounding is still D-Mo’s biggest weakness, given the immense strides he has made overall on the defensive end.

I thought we had a star on our hands, and by the end of 2015, we seemed to at the least have developed a very effective long term starter.  The skills are there.  And when healthy, so is the production.  But how much can the Rockets risk on that back injury?

About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of

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