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Is Donatas Motiejunas ready to take the next step?

The Rockets big man has been thrust into the spotlight due to injuries. Can he flourish?

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Donatas Motiejunas might be the Houston Rockets' most important player right now.

James Harden is the beating heart and best chance the Rockets have of winning each game (and eventually the championship), but the rash of injuries to Rockets big men has not just thrust D-Mo into the starting lineup, it's made him the only NBA-level player taller than 6'8" on the team. And yes, that includes Tarik Black and Joey Dorsey, who fulfill neither of those qualifications. It's a huge burden for a player that looked like he might never be ready for it in the first few games of the season.

Donatas has started since Terrence Jones went down with his peroneal nerve injury after the fourth game of the Rockets' season, but still didn't play starters' minutes or perform consistently. But in the six games since Dwight Howard's knee injury, something has changed in the big Lithuanian.

D-Mo has averaged 13 points and 7 rebounds, numbers which would be even better if not for the total team dookie against the Clippers last week. John Hollinger's Game Score statistic, explained here, tells us that Motiejunas' best five games of the season have all come in the seven games that Dwight has missed. Going back a year, D-Mo's best game of the 2013-14 season, again according to Game Score, was March 20 against the Minnesota Timberwolves, a win in which he scored 20 points on 9-11 shooting with 6 rebounds. Dwight also missed that game.

Without a doubt, the most visible improvement in D-Mo's game recently, and probably the reason this article is even being written, has been his post offense. Look at this move:

And this one, finishing with the other hand:

Both of these are culled from a great piece on D-Mo's offensive progression by CBS Houston's Adam Spolane. Check that post out if you want to see a couple of great passes from D-Mo too.

Of course, we've seen a flash or two of these skills from the big man scattered among his first couple of seasons as well. His skills are evident, and the question has always been if he can display them consistently. For whatever reason, Kevin McHale has never seen fit to give Motiejunas big minutes before his hand was forced these last few games - whether this is because of Omer Asik's presence, because D-Mo never showed enough in practice, or because McHale is a capricious minutes distributor in general who never trusts his young guns, we'll never know. But in the key six-game stretch we're discussing, Donatas is averaging 30 minutes a game.

Taking a look at D-Mo's shooting numbers during this stretch, we see a gifted and efficient post player with a bit of a long-range shot. His field-goal percentage from within eight feet of the basket in these last six games is 64%, which goes from being a great number to a completely absurd one when you consider that he hasn't made a single dunk in that time frame. He's only attempted one, and missed it! Look at his shot chart so far in this season:

D-Mo shot chart

How does a seven-foot-tall man take 73% of his shots around the rim and only dunk it ONE TIME ALL SEASON (INCLUDING PUTBACKS)?! It's a goddamned miracle he's doing that well, and it speaks to his touch around the rim and his ability to finish with both hands.

Perhaps just as critical to D-Mo's long-term prospects is how he's played defensively in Dwight's absence. He has shared more of the under-the-basket responsibility with Black or Dorsey when they've been on the floor, but neither of them actually contribute much. Still, his defensive rating all year has been 96.6, a very good mark in line with how the Rockets have been performing as a team. In these six Dwight-less games, that number rises to 100.1 - still OK, considering he has no real help on the front lines. It's enough to get by if you have even a decent offense.

The three most common Rockets lineups including D-Mo and not Dwight have averaged a sparkling 90.2 defensive rating. It's still a very small sample size (only 93 minutes total), but that would be way under the 95 defensive rating the Warriors had last season, best in the league. Even the Pacers - THIS year - could win with that kind of defense.

If there's a nagging voice in the back of your head saying there's something wrong with this picture, well, it's a pretty smart nagging voice. You should listen to it more often. Even though lineups with both Dwight and D-Mo have done well this year (with a 10.1 net rating), the one time the Rockets faced an elite front line with both of them healthy was in Memphis, where they got stomped.

Without Howard and facing the Clippers, D-Mo was smothered and the Rockets, again, got stomped. The only reason the Rockets pulled out a victory against the Mavericks was because of Dirk's ice-cold shooting, as Tyson Chandler and Brandan Wright feasted on the inside.

Of course, there are caveats here - against good defensive big men DeMarcus Cousins and Larry Sanders, D-Mo had his two best games of the season, scoring at least 20 points in both of those wins. But the concern still remains about how well Motiejunas, and the Rockets, can actually perform when challenged by championship-caliber big men. By the way, the Grizzlies come to town tomorrow.

So, what can we actually expect from Donatas Motiejunas for the rest of the season? Based on the shape of his offensive game, and his performance as the defensive anchor inside, one thing jumps out at me: he's not a power forward. Sure, he has the hint of an outside shot, but look again at that shot chart - it's not enough of a threat to alter a defensive game plan. And, true to Moreyball form, his mid-range game is nonexistent. D-Mo seems perfectly suited as a center with a threatening post-up game who's good enough defensively.

I know it's not what Rockets fans want to hear, but it seems like our best backup big is once again a guy who works best when filling the same spaces that Dwight Howard likes to occupy. It made more sense to me the more I thought about it - why else would D-Mo seem so lost at times when we know he has some real NBA skills, and the confidence to use them when he knows it's his shot to take?

Here's the killer example: D-Mo's best shot is clearly his hook shot - he's shooting nearly 65% on them this season, and takes them more frequently than any other kind of shot besides a straight layup. Dwight Howard's offensive game consists of three shots - dunks, layups, and hook shots.  Here's his shot chart this season:

If D-Mo and Dwight are employed correctly, this can be a good thing, not a problem. This isn't a new Omer Asik situation; what D-Mo lacks in defense, he should make up in offense. There never has to be a moment when the Rockets don't have a low-post scoring threat on the floor, which should give their shooters the space they need.

D-Mo has already played enough at the power forward slot so that the Rockets can go big for defense, and he seems perfectly suited to Coach McHale's small-ball lineup in which Big Papa plays the undersized four. The only obstacle is McHale himself, and his notoriously questionable rotation decisions.

Dwight Howard's injury - which looks like it will keep him out for tomorrow's Grizzlies game at least - has given Donatas Motiejunas the opportunity to showcase what he can do in extended minutes, and he's seized it. The only problem is that it raises more questions than answers about the Rockets' springtime aspirations when healthy. When Dwight comes back, will D-Mo revert to the miscast power forward who disappears for games at a time, or can Kevin McHale put him in an opportunity to succeed as the backup center that he truly is?

Even if McHale comes to his senses and deploys Motiejunas correctly, the Rockets still need depth in the frontcourt. Now we know that the need is more at power forward than center, and if that need gets filled, the Rockets just might become a complete team. Now, if Troy Daniels could just get some friggin' minutes...