January 16, 2019
A player who was giftwrapped a starting spot, made it his own, lost it due to a new signing, but then won it back.

The Houston Rockets currently rank second in the league in scoring allowed per possession, which is particularly impressive given that star center Dwight Howard has missed 12 games due to injury and Omer Asik now plays in New Orleans. The only other center options have been limited; Joey Dorsey has been in-and-out of the rotation, and Tarik Black – now waived and with the Los Angeles Lakers – was a limited rim protector. However, the one stabilizing presence throughout the season has been third year power forward Donatas Motiejunas, for whom the injuries have allowed consistent playing time after a couple of seasons relegated to spot duty.

Motiejunas has shone in ways he is not well known for being good at. According to NBA.com’s SportVU tracking technology, opponents have shot just 43.5% on approximately 166 attempts at the rim with Motiejunas protecting it – a mark that ranks sixth in the league among players who defend a minimum of five shots at the basket per game. Rather than being the transcending difference maker that that stat alone might suggest, Motiejunas is being this effective mostly due to his good fit within the Rockets’ defense, schemes, but he has nonetheless been effective dropping back to the foul line and guarding the pick-and-roll flat.

For somebody who stands at seven-feet tall, Motiejunas is not exactly a wall in the lane, without great strength or length. It is not as though his mere presence clogging the lane makes an impact in the way that Howard and Asik might. Motiejunas has instead become a plus defender by making his rotations with good timing, showing capable of playing above the rim as a shot blocker and ranking eighth in the league in charges drawn, per nbasavant.com. On the glass, he isn’t quick off the ground tracking the ball off the rim, but is attentive to his boxout responsibility, posting an average defensive rebounding rate among position peers.

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Since Howard has returned – and with previous starting power forward Terrence Jones logging just 117 minutes this season due to injury – Motiejunas has logged most of his minutes alongside Howard and has thus been forced to guard big men that gravitate towards the perimeter. He showed decent lateral mobility to stay in front of Ryan Anderson and Chris Bosh in isolation, but doesn’t change directions as quickly as those guys and doesn’t feel particularly comfortable defending in space, lacking the closing speed to effectively contest shots in the perimeter. Nonetheless, on the defensive end, Motiejunas has made notable improvements and is defying his previous reputation for soft and lazy defense.

What has probably caught most people’s attentions regarding his development into a rotation player, however, is the offensive end, and particularly is his post scoring. Motiejunas was projected as a stretch four when he transferred to the NBA and many imagined him as a Ryan Anderson prototype when the Rockets signed Howard. Instead, he is currently taking less than a quarter of his shots from three-point range, evolving into a full-time interior scorer and a very efficient one, even if he’s shared the floor with Howard on almost 48% of the minutes Dwight’s been available.

According to nbasavant.com, Motiejunas leads the league in scoring off hook shots, hitting his 89 such attempts at a 60.6% clip. He further ranks second when you combine those finishes with turnaround, fadeaway jump-shots. Context is important, of course – Motiejunas is not often guarded by the opponent’s top big man. But Motiejunas has nonetheless improved his ability to set deep post position against more athletic types and his footwork is very natural. He is able to score from either side of the block, often preferring to finish with a turnaround, right-handed hook but also carrying an up-and-under to protect himself against shot blockers and a jump-stop left-handed hook in his arsenal.

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Despite his good height, his physical tools limit his offensive effectiveness somewhat. As a finisher out of the pick-and-roll, Motiejunas is a decent screener who looks to draw contact but doesn’t always disrupt the on-ball defender off his path. He has good hands to catch the ball on the move and touch to score at rim level, yet he doesn’t play above the basket as a target for lobs and can’t finish with power in traffic. And according to NBA.com/stats/, Motiejunas has finished his 103 shots in the restricted area at a 56.3% clip, but has also been blocked on 15% of his attempts.

The perimeter game he was once thought to be best suited for also still needs refinement. Motiejunas is still playing a role spacing the floor around James Harden-Dwight Howard straight pick-and-rolls but hasn’t shot well, even when open. He has taken 49 of his 51 three-point attempts with no defender within four feet of him, all of them off the catch, yethe has hit just 28.5% of them. Not helping his cause here is an unusual release, in the sense that he doesn’t extend himself much, never quite bringing the ball on top of his head and essentially shooting from the front of his forehead.

Nevertheless, despite the returnees and new additions around him, Motiejunas continues to receive minutes, because he earned them. He returned to the team’s top lineup against the Miami Heat on Saturday, after Kevin McHale tried Josh Smith in his place for a few games. Smith was perhaps brought in because of his passing – it certainly wasn’t his shooting – yet Motiejunas has flashed some great passing instincts himself; hitting cutters out of the low post, flashing to the foul line for high-low action and shorting his rolls to hit spot-up shooters in the perimeter. If Houston had attempted to incorporate Motiejunas’s passing more proactively, to go along with his useful and versatile scoring game and renewed defensive vigor, it’s possible there would be no need to add Smith.

Daryl Morey is mostly known for his analytics background and for the couple dozen trades he made that put the team in position to trade for Harden and sign Howard in free agency. But he has also often drafted well, Royce White notwithstanding. And as a player in the midst of a breakout campaign who, thus far at least, is winning the minutes battle at an extremely cluttered position on one of the league’s best teams, Motiejunas has become the latest example.

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Rafael Uehara

Rafael Uehara is a contributor at bballbreakdown.com. More of his stuff can be read at basketballscouting.wordpress.com, his personal blog, and Upside & Motor, where he's also a regular contributor.

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