Imagine an NBA prospect with the following traits:
- 6-foot-7 frame
- Tight ball-handle
- Pristine jumper
- The ability to run point or aptly play on the wing
- 18 years old, with two years of professional experience in the world’s second-toughest league
Well, if you remotely paid attention to the recently culminated Eurobasket, you know that very prospect exists. And his name is Luka Doncic.
Doncic’s Robin act to Goran Dragic’s Batman, along with the contributions of Anthony Randolph (yes, that Anthony Randolph) helped Slovenia win their first-ever gold medal in a FIBA tournament – a historic achievement for the nation of just over two million inhabitants.
Specifically, over his country’s eight-game run, Doncic put up 15.1 points, 8.4 boards and 3.8 assists per contest, while turning the ball over merely 1.2 times nightly.
Even more promising than his raw averages, though, was the multiplicity of roles Doncic played with Slovenia.
On nights when Dragic was on fire (which was often, as the Miami Heat guard won MVP of the tournament), the teenager took a metaphorical backseat – becoming an effective secondary ball-handler.
And during the contests when Dragic wasn’t doing his Drogon impersonation, Doncic was keen to take over the brunt of the scoring load.
It’s the versatility he displayed during Eurobasket, and has shown thus far over the course of his two seasons in Liga ACB, that has NBA execs salivating.
“Quite frankly, there has never been a draft prospect like Doncic,” an NBA scout told HoopsHype. “[As] if what he has done at EuroBasket was not enough, with (Real Madrid guard) Sergio Llull out for the season, Luka has a chance to become the most productive teenager in ACB and Euroleague history.”
That’s not hyperbole, by the way. The 18-year-old has already won two Liga ACB titles with Real Madrid, to go with the aforementioned Slovenian gold-medal run.
Taking his recent performances under a microscope, we can see that Doncic’s most promising showings during Eurobasket came back-to-back and with the highest possible stakes: facing two of the competition’s toughest squads.
First, against a Latvia team headlined by New York Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis and San Antonio Spurs 4-man Davis Bertans in the quarter finals, Doncic went off for 27 points, needing only 14 shot attempts to do so, and turning the ball over merely once in the process. For good measure, he also pulled down nine rebounds.
Porzingis, as has become customary thus far in his NBA career, found himself in foul trouble with the game’s outcome up for grabs.
Using that knowledge to his advantage, Doncic – displaying a basketball IQ uncommon for a player of his age – began to attack the 7-foot-3 floor-spacer with aplomb.
Each of those plays came after a pick-and-roll-induced switch, which is where the Slovenian stud shines most. (More on that in a bit.)
The matchup against Latvia succinctly showed his potential as a score-first guard. His performance against Spain, on the other hand, exhibited his prospects as a distributing point-creator.
Facing the gold-medal favorites, Doncic struggled to get his shot to fall. Understandable, as the Spaniards boasted the tournament’s stingiest defense. The Real Madrid guard shot 3-for-10 overall, scoring 11 points in 36 minutes.
Nevertheless, Slovenia wouldn’t have been victorious without the young man’s contributions, as he was able to take over the game playing more of a lead guard role. Doncic dished out eight assists on the night, turned the ball over a whopping zero times and pulled down 12 rebounds against one of world’s most battle-tested squads ever.
What the future top-three pick lacks in athleticism, he makes up for with creativity as a playmaker.
“It’s natural to have some question marks about his upside and athleticism, especially given the level of explosiveness and speed required to succeed in our league as a perimeter player, but this kid is special,” the same NBA scout told HoopsHype.
We can’t help but agree.
In particular, his feel out of the pick-and-roll astonishes when you consider his age and level of experience. Just watch the following clips against Spain for proof:
Not to beat a dead horse, but to see an 18-year-old exhibit that type of patience while running the point against an elite opponent is jaw-dropping.
A similar action occurs two plays later:
The Slovenian playmaker, using the ball in his hands like a magnet for defenders, notices the gravity he has created and drops off an exquisitely weighted bounce pass to his rim-diving big, who finishes the play with a dunk, unmolested.
Our final display of Doncic’s creative brilliance is a counter of the previous clip:
The probing combo guard utilizes the screen, but notices Pau and Marc Gasol clogging the strong side, ready to impede his progress. This time, however, he also spots Ricky Rubio committing a fatal error.
The newest member of the Utah Jazz backcourt remembers the prior play, thus, he decides to dig down in an attempt to disrupt the pick-and-roll.
Except this left Aleksej Nikolic – who shot 42.9 percent from beyond the arc for the tournament – by himself in the corner. Doncic, thanks to both his wizardry as a passer and 6-foot-7 frame, quickly spots him over the mass of humanity in the paint, and feeds him with a perfect dish right on the No. 6 displayed by his jersey.
Another three-pointer for Slovenia, created by its youngest player.
Overall, during the pivotal two-game stretch, Doncic averaged 19.0 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 14.0 free throws(!) per contest – while boasting an absurd plus/minus of plus-29 in his 72 minutes on the floor, against two of the best teams in Europe.
It’s safe to qualify that as not bad.
Doncic’s NBA prospects
Despite Doncic’s vast array of skills and overall dearth of talent, he is far from a lock to go No. 1 overall in the 2018 NBA draft.
Freakish combo forward Marvin Bagley (headed to Duke) has an uncanny blend of hops and dexterity as a ball-handler, along with a burgeoning three-pointer. And Missouri’s 6-foot-10 swingman Michael Porter can fill it up from anywhere on the floor, which earned him the nickname “Baby Kevin Durant” during his prep career.
But it’s impossible to deny Doncic has made one hell of a push for the top spot with fewer than 10 months to go until teams are on the clock.
Per the anonymous NBA scout: “[Doncic] is a legitimate candidate to be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, which has never been done by any European guard…. GMs tend to go with elite athleticism over skill and/or production, especially at the top of the draft. But I believe that an outlier skill level can yield upside, even with a poor physical profile. I have never seen so skilled and versatile a European prospect since I have been doing this.”
Doncic’s outrageous feel for the game on the offensive end sets him apart. He patiently probes defenses for weaknesses, only attacking when he senses an advantage.
In 638 Liga ACB minutes last season, he turned the ball over merely 65 times; he knows how to imprint absolute control over a game.
And when you need him to get buckets, he can do just that as well – even despite lacking elite athleticism. Doncic has a tidy floater, uses his size to capably finish near the basket and showed off a ridiculous step-back three-pointer multiple times throughout the Eurobasket.
The road to the 2018 NBA draft is still yet unwinding, and we have a ways to go before anyone truly merits top-pick consideration.
But dismissing Doncic’s chances simply due to his country of origin is foolhardy. He’s the real deal, and more ready to contribute at the NBA level than anyone else in his class.
You can follow Frank on Twitter @frankurbina_.