Without his entourage of minders hovering over him, Doncic seems more open and relaxed. When he mentions that he closely follows the NBA, I ask him what goes through his head when he watches games, and he chuckles. “That could be me, crossed over!” He says he likes the pace of play and the prevalence of the pick-and-roll. His favorite players are LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but he’s enjoyed watching Ben Simmons. “I think we are, like, similar, you know?” he says. “He can play point guard, he can play forward. He can play a lot of stuff, like LeBron.”
He signed with Real Madrid at age 13 and made his EuroLeague debut at 16. Now, at 19, he is averaging 22 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7 assists per 36 minutes (through April 5), leading the second-best league in the world in player efficiency. Every month, throngs of scouts trek to Spain, hoping to glean new pieces of data that will help them calculate whether Doncic’s worth matches his hype. “Our reports are that he’s the kind of guy who’s very rare,” one NBA executive says.
While we’re talking, Alyson calls Dragic, who has stayed in touch with Doncic since EuroBasket, mentoring him as he prepares for the NBA. Seconds later, his beaming face appears on her phone. She hands it to Doncic, who prompts his friend to take off his hat and show him his new haircut. They chat in Slovenian for a minute, and Doncic bursts into laughter. After he hangs up, I ask him what Dragic told him. “He said, ‘We’re losing in Miami, so you can come,'” he says.
But among league insiders, the question isn’t whether the Slovenian teenager will bust — almost no one thinks that. Rather, it’s whether his ceiling is high enough to justify drafting him above the likes of Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III. While Doncic is hardly plodding, he isn’t exceptionally quick or strong. “His body is physically mature, so you worry about how much more it can change — how much upside he can have,” says one front office staffer. When teams have sent their best athletes to stop him, he’s struggled at times to break free. On the other side of the ball, he’s a diligent defender, but he isn’t agile enough to keep up with nimble guards.
Like Dragic, Igor Kokoskov, the Utah Jazz assistant who coached Slovenia, marvels at Doncic’s precociousness. “Leadership and presence on the court — you can’t coach it,” he says. In some ways, he explains, Doncic’s background has molded him into the player he is today: a teenager who sees and thinks and moves on the court like a much older man, exhibiting none of the self-doubt that normally comes with inexperience. But it’s also shaped him in unknowable ways. “He kind of missed some parts of his life — his basketball childhood,” Kokoskov says. “He had to grow up fast.”
But it’s starting to become more obvious that figuring out ways to stop the Cavs’ offense isn’t just a Toronto problem, especially when wily veteran Jose Calderon is spearheading the attack. “His ability to make shots and be very cerebral with our packages, it allows him to be successful,” LeBron James said of Calderon. “I think he’s just a smart, smart basketball player. I mean, I’ve played against the Spain National Team for a long time and there’s not one player on that team that’s not, pretty much, smart and knows how to play. You look at the Gasol twins. You look at Ricky Rubio. And Rodriguez and Jose and all those guys, they were just really smart and they were never going to beat themselves. So for us to have him has just been an extra security blanket for us.”
After the game, Cleveland’s superstar LeBron James said the following about the Spaniard, praising not only his teammate but also the Spanish basketball IQ. “He is a smart basketball player. I know it from playing against Spain’s national team for many years. They don’t produce guys who don’t have high basketball IQ,“ said the 33-year old James who has played numerous times against Spain.