"If you're afraid of wolves, don't go in the woods." So said Rockets rookie Donatas Motiejunas. The NBA is full of alpha wolves, and it pays to know they are there. Still, with that in mind the Rockets rookie forward/center is keen to take the court in the NBA. He's not afraid to go into the woods, and why should he be? He's already got the makings of a complete post player, and has been playing professionally, and improving, since he was 17.
Unlike, say, Sergio Llull, Motiejunas wants to play in the NBA, and is seizing the opportunity before him to claim a starting spot for years to come. He chose to come to the Rockets, and the NBA, rather than joining the Lithuanian national team and playing in the 2012 Olympics. For those who don't know much about Lithuania, basketball is both religion and source of intense national pride there. (If you love basketball stories check out The Other Dream Team, about Lithuania's legitimately heroic and inspiring 1992 bronze medal basketball team.)
So, Donatas Motiejunas wants to be a Rocket, which is an excellent start. He is quite possibly the answer to prayers Rockets management have prayed fervently, and not so secretly, before going to bed at night for the last five seasons. At long last, the vision of a spacing big man is revealed. Motiejunas is a fluid 7 footer who can obviously play the Euro big man spacing game. He's got developing NBA 3pt range, and can handle the ball confidently. He's an able passer, both stationary and on the move. Donatas should be able to drag defenders out to the three-point line, clearing space at the basket, and punishing defenders who remain inside with his shooting.
He's also an inside player in a style Kevin McHale can appreciate. He's got an assortment of soft shots that he can shoot with either hand in the post - hooks, banks, floaters. Motiejunas doesn't have an up-and-under move that I've seen. With McHale on the job, he should develop one on those, and probably several more scoring options from in close.
One knock on Motiejunas' inside game is that for a guy who is 7 feet tall, he doesn't power to the rim as often as he should for contact and the bucket. Perhaps he'll add that aspect, but he needs to improve his free throw shooting as well. (Maybe White, Parsons, Motiejunas and Asik need special after-school FT lessons?)
Also for a seven footer, he's not terribly bulky, listed at 222lbs (which looks low to me) is in any case around 20-30lbs lighter than 6'9" Terrence Jones. Motiejunas has been adding muscle in the gym in the past couple of years, however, and will probably top out around 235.
Defensively Motiejunas is not considered special, but is thought to be a willing and tenacious defender who can move his feet to keep in front of his man. So far, he's an average shot blocker for his size, perhaps a bit worse than he could be, as he doesn't leave his feet that often. This is a disadvantage for shot blocking, but not so bad when defending the post. After a year of watching Samuel Dalembert leap out of position to go for blocks across the lane, I'll settle for a guy who stays at home with his man, and is in position for the rebound.
Motiejunas didn't come to the USA with a huge rebounding reputation, but he looked to have a knack for it in summer league. We'll see how he does against NBA competition, but I expect he'll at least pull down average boards for his position and minutes, if not better.
The question on the minds of many is "how will he be used"? The Rockets need to give minutes at PF to Patrick Patterson, Royce White, Terrence Jones and possibly Marcus Morris. Motiejunas needs minutes there too, but he can also play some center, providing an offense/defense platoon with Omer Asik. The Rockets also have the ability to field some frighteningly big lineups in the right circumstances - Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, and Omer Asik.
I think of the big men currently on the Rockets that Motiejunas' flexibility, with both position and game, will get him the most minutes of all the current contenders. This will be a learning year for the team, and he'll be no different, but I expect about 16pts, 9rbs, 3ast, 1.5blk, and 1stl for the first season with more to come in year two.
Be patient with your Rockets as the season unfolds, as I'm not sure any NBA team has been quite this young and inexperienced overall in a long time. There will be moments of brilliance, but still more of confusion. Even so, Donatas Motiejunas is my favorite to be the most consistently effective of the rookies.