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Luka Doncic Might Be the Best European NBA Prospect of the 21st Century

The Slovenian youngster is 18 years old with a game going on 26, and is a major contributor to one of the best teams in Europe. His résumé speaks for itself, and so does his complete set of skills.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Luka Doncic is already a star. Despite just turning 18 in February, the young Slovenian is one of the best players on one of the best teams in Europe. Doncic is so far ahead of his peers it’s unclear who his peers are even supposed to be at this point. Instead of competing in the Under-18 European Championships or the Under-19 World Championships, he was a key player on a Real Madrid team that made it to the Euroleague Final Four in May. The Euroleague is the basketball version of the Champions League, featuring the best teams from the top domestic leagues in Europe, and Doncic was dominant in his time on the floor, with per-40 minute averages of 15.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, 8.5 assists, and 1.7 steals a game on 43.4 percent shooting. He’s the most accomplished European prospect since Ricky Rubio, and he’s a much more complete player. There aren’t many things he can’t do on a basketball court.

There’s no comparison between what Doncic is doing and what most recent European lottery picks (since 2014) have done in their last season abroad before coming over to the U.S.:

The only recent import with stats similar to Doncic is Dario Saric, and he was 21 in his final season overseas. Doncic is 18, and he still has one more year in Spain before he’s draft eligible. When Saric was 18, he was still competing for junior teams and had played in only four Euroleague games.

"For an 18-year-old to do what [Doncic] is doing in the second-best league in the world is remarkable," said ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, who specializes in scouting international basketball. "He’s always one play ahead."

"I’ve been tracking him for years," a statistical analyst for an NBA team told me. "My model has him as the second-best player in the world outside of the NBA. If I was running a team at the top of the draft, I’d be doing everything in my power to get him."

It’s not just the numbers. Watch Doncic play for any amount of time and the appeal is obvious. Not many 6-foot-8 swingmen can make plays like this, regardless of age:

Doncic is not an elite athlete, but he knows how to use his size to get where he wants to go on the court, and he almost always makes the right decision with the ball. As one European scout told me, you would think he was 26 or 27 if you watched him without knowing who he was. Doncic signed a pro contract with Madrid at the age of 13, and he was on its senior team by 16, the third-youngest player to ever appear in the Liga ACB. European coaches play deeper rotations than coaches do in the U.S., and Doncic is playing on a stacked team that features former NBA players like Rudy Fernández, Anthony Randolph, Jeffery Taylor, Andrés Nocioni, and Gustavo Ayón, so he averaged only 20 minutes per game, but he was a featured player when he was on the floor. Head coach Pablo Laso gave him the freedom to bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense, putting him in screens and letting him react to the defense. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Doncic was in the ACB’s 88th percentile as a playmaker on 531 possessions in the pick-and-roll last season. He can make difficult passes on the move, manipulating the second line of defense to create openings that most players can’t even see:

The difference between Doncic and Rubio, the last teenage phenom in the ACB, is that Doncic has a much more refined outside shot at this stage in his career. In 80 combined games in the Euroleague, ACB, and Spanish Cup, Doncic shot 76-of-228 (33.3 percent) from 3 and 139-of-172 (80.8 percent) from the free throw line. He has a solid, compact shot with a quick release, and he can shoot 3s off the dribble:

Doncic will have to continue to improve as a shooter as he transitions to the NBA, since he won’t have the same athletic edge there that he has against most European players. He needs the threat of the outside shot to create driving lanes to the basket, and it’s hard to see him becoming an elite offensive player without it. Guys like Steph Curry and Nikola Jokic can be the primary options on good NBA teams despite average athleticism because defenders can’t give them any space on the perimeter. Once Doncic has a step, he knows how to use his body to create an angle to the basket, and he’s already adept at drawing contact and finishing in traffic:

Every NBA person I talked to at Las Vegas summer league was impressed by Doncic’s skill set and production. The skeptics, though, question whether he’s athletic enough to be in the no. 1 overall pick discussion. The 2018 draft isn’t projected to be as deep as 2017, but there’s plenty of competition at the top, from 6-foot-10 wing Michael Porter Jr., the early front-runner, to highly-touted big men like DeAndre Ayton, Mohamed Bamba, and Marvin Bagley III, the top-rated player in the Class of 2018 who might reclassify in order to play college basketball this season.

"The European guys who tend to outperform in the draft models are tall swingmen with a good feel for the game who can dominate the lower level of competition, but don’t have the athletic ability to be an elite player in the NBA," one Eastern Conference executive told me. "I like Doncic, but he might just be a smaller version of Hedo Turkoglu."

There’s definitely a ceiling to how good Doncic can be defensively in the NBA. Although he doesn’t have any publicly available physical measurements, on tape he doesn’t appear to be particularly fast nor does he appear to be particularly long. He never played in the Nike Hoop Summit, which has become a rite of passage for the top young international players, so he hasn’t matched up with the best perimeter players from North America — guys like Porter and R.J. Barrett, who have the athletic ability to challenge him on both sides of the ball. Those types of über-athletic 6-foot-7-plus forwards are almost all in the NBA: I talked to one scout who said the most athletic wing Doncic faced in Spain was probably Chase Budinger, who has had multiple knee surgeries since his last slam dunk contest appearance in 2012.

Doncic competes on defense, and he wouldn’t have gotten minutes for Real Madrid if he didn’t, but like most younger players, he will have to get much stronger to survive in the NBA. He should be able to continue adding weight to his frame, which has changed drastically in his years in Madrid, but he’s not getting any longer, which makes it difficult for him to contest the shots of guys like Deshaun Thomas, a former Ohio State star taken in the second round by the Spurs back in 2013:

However, while he’s never going to be a stopper at the next level, Doncic has the toughness and savvy to hold his own, and he’s athletic enough to surprise people who underestimate his ability to get up. He’s a good off-ball defender who racked up steals in Europe by reading the offense and being in the right place at the right time, and he’s not afraid to mix it up in the lane and protect the rim:

The ideal outcome for Doncic in the NBA would be to play next to multipositional defenders who allow him to guard the worst perimeter player on the opposing team. The good news is his offensive versatility means he could fit in almost any lineup. One of Madrid’s most effective lineups was using Doncic as a point forward, not playing a traditional point guard, and siccing more athletic wings like Fernandez and Taylor on opposing guards, where they have a dramatic size advantage. With those three and Randolph at the 5, Madrid’s ability to switch screens allowed it to play like an NBA team on defense.

Euroleague players as productive statistically as Doncic rarely bust in the NBA, and the consensus around the league is that his size and skill make him a pretty safe selection. How good he can be, though, is the subject of a fierce debate.

"There’s a good chance we get to next April and [Doncic] is the most polarizing player in the draft," said Elan Vinokurov, the president of EV Hoops, a scouting service used by many NBA teams. "We have never seen a player like him before, in terms of what he’s done in Europe at his age. I’m usually a guy who’s quick to come up with comparisons, but no one really comes to mind. He’s one of a kind."

One name multiple NBA people have floated to me is Larry Bird, and a 17-year-old Bird probably wouldn’t have been any more productive in Europe than Doncic has been. Putting that type of pressure on any young player is unfair, but he has been so good that it’s hard to put a ceiling on how good he can be either. Luka Doncic is a joy to watch, and every team in the NBA has been watching him closely for years. Most players his age have a chance to be special. He already is.