19-year-old Slovenian Luka Doncic, fresh from helping his nation claim a shock EuroBasket victory, is widely projected to be the top overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft and is the most exciting European prospect in recent memory.
But just what is it that makes Doncic such a tantalizing prospect for NBA scouts?
Basketball is in his blood
Doncic has been around the game since he was born. Luka’s father, Sasa Doncic, was a hugely respected pro who played all over Europe, winning a Slovenian League title with a young Goran Dragic in 2008.
Dragic has recently spoken about Doncic Jr.'s passion for the game when he was hanging around his father’s team. He said: “Every time at halftime when we came out from the locker room he would always be shooting the ball. I always have this memory.”
The picture below shows a nine-year-old Luka (in green) celebrating the 2008 Slovenian championship with his father and a youthful Goran Dragic.
When Luka was playing youth basketball in Slovenia, he lived to play ball. His first youth coach remembers it being impossible to give him the day off. Whenever he tried, Doncic’s parents would call saying that Luka was begging to be allowed to go to practice.
Doncic's obsession for basketball translated into an astonishing youth career in Slovenia where he regularly competed with kids three or four years older than him. At the under-13 Lido Di Roma championship, Doncic scored 56 points, grabbed ten boards and dished out ten assists in the final on his way to claiming the tournament MVP.
This performance persuaded Real Madrid, one of European basketball’s powerhouse, to formalize their interest in Doncic and sign the 13-year-old to a five-year deal.
Doncic has a killer mentality
Early in his time with Real Madrid, it became apparent that Doncic had an appetite for the big moments. Having arrived as a 13-year-old kid, far from home, who spoke little Spanish. The teenager quickly adapted to the Spanish language and culture. He soaked up everything he could, practicing with the first team and impressing for Madrid’s youth outfits.
His breakthrough came during the 2015-16 season, with the wingman gaining a spot on the first team roster and playing significant minutes off the bench in crucial EuroLeague games. His breakout performance came against CSKA Moscow, the eventual 2016 EuroLeague Champions, where Doncic scored 12 points, including three triples in just 13 minutes of play.
He continued to thrive on the big occasion throughout the 2016/17 season. Doncic won four EuroLeague player of the round awards on his way to claiming the EuroLeague Rising Star award in a unanimous vote. He finished the season averaging 7.8 points per game in EuroLeague play and nearly doubled the minutes he played in 2015/16.
His development continued at EuroBasket, the biggest stage he has played on to date. Doncic wowed scouts with his all-round game and competitive nature, leading his team to a stunning tournament victory. Every time Doncic has been thrown onto a bigger stage he has risen to the challenge. This bodes very well for the most difficult transition he will have to make: the transition into the NBA.
He has incredible basketball IQ
The teenager has showcased an exceptional feel for the game throughout his young career. He has the ball-handling skills, passing range and basketball intelligence to pick apart opposing defenses with a clinical edge that is rare in a player of his age.
Whether he is firing outlet passes to start a fast break, skipping bounce passes through packed defenses, or executing the pick and roll in a half court offense, Doncic rarely makes the wrong decision.
His variety of playmaking skills were on show during a career-high 11-assist performance against UNICS Kazan in this season’s EuroLeague. Doncic broke down the Russian team’s defense with a deadly mixture of wrap-around bounce passes and lobs to the big man out of the pick and roll.
In addition to the maturity with which he runs the pick and roll, the two-time Spanish League champion is also accomplished at driving to the basket before kicking the ball out to open shooters. He plays at a relentless pace that always has defenders on the back foot.
This heady mixture of athleticism and basketball IQ have already drawn comparisons to a young LeBron James.
Shoots with increasing range and touch
Ricky Rubio was another exceptional talent who burst from the European stage at an absurdly young age. However, Rubio’s lack of shooting ability has meant he has found adapting to the NBA tough, particularly in the current era which values three-point shooting more than ever.
It would appear that Doncic will have no such problems. He shot 37% from beyond the arc in EuroLeague play this season and continued to showcase his improving range at EuroBasket. Doncic regularly lulled his defender to sleep with his languid crossover before launching a quick step back three from way beyond the arc.
The NBA three-point line is 49cm further from the basket than the FIBA line used in Europe. However, his ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc suggests he will have little trouble adapting. Scouts have also noted that his shooting motion is solid and repeatable with a silky stroke which will translate well in the NBA.
Doncic has exceptional physical gifts
Standing at 6’ 7” and weighing in at 218 pounds, The Ljubljana-born Intercontinental Cup champion is an absolute physical freak for an 18-year-old. To put that in context, LeBron James, arguably the finest athlete the NBA has ever seen, weighed 240 pounds and was 6’ 8” when he entered the league in 2003.
The NBA is a huge physical step up from Europe, where size, speed and strength is prized incredibly highly. Previous European prospects have often struggled with this transition but Doncic should have no problems if he keeps developing at his current rate.
What could be more of a steep learning curve is the sheer pace at which the NBA is played. He will have less time to make his reads, will have tighter windows to squeeze his passes through, and his shots will be more closely contested. How Doncic adapts to the increased pace will be crucial in deciding how successful he will be in the NBA.
A common stick used to beat European players with is their lack of defensive ability. There is no doubt that Doncic still has many of the defensive flaws in his game that plague young players from both sides of the Atlantic.
He can be slow to rotate to the ball or help from the weak side of the defense. However, these are things that he can learn if he lands in the right system with the right coach. What Doncic has shown is flashes of defensive potential, producing eye-catching blocks and steals.
Whether or not Doncic can iron out the defensive wrinkles will depend heavily on who he is drafted by. If he is drafted by a team with a good defensive culture and a head coach who values defense, he can overcome these issues.
Having watched Doncic throughout EuroBasket and his burgeoning EuroLeague career, he has all the tools to succeed in the NBA. There is no such thing as a guarantee in sport as injuries and circumstances can conspire against a player.
However, players who have played with and against Doncic have been almost universal in their praise for the young man’s skills and competitive drive. What is certain is that Doncic's time under the radar is over. The eyes of the basketball world will be glued to the young Slovenian this year as he gears up to enter the NBA.
Take a look at Luka Doncic's skills below and share your thoughts on them in the comments section!