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The Dance of Doncic: Will Luka Leverage His Way to His NBA Team of Choice?

The potential no. 1 pick suggested that his EuroLeague career may not be over after this season

Luka Doncic Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It took two days after the draft lottery for one of the presumptive top picks to create some controversy.

Or did he? Luka Doncic is preparing to play in the Final Four of the EuroLeague for Real Madrid, but on Thursday, he had some pot-stirring things to say about his future in the NBA.

“Ι’m not sure if these are the last two games [in EuroLeague],” Doncic said. “We have yet to make this decision. Perhaps after the season.”

Sound the alarm!

While Suns and Kings fans wring their hands, it’s important to note where and when Doncic said this. He’s about to play in some of the biggest games of his career, games that, despite what he said, may be his final two with the club he’s been with since 2015. Do you think he wants to talk about leaving his team before the final buzzer sounds? Maybe I’m giving a 19-year-old too much credit for his media savvy, but if U.S fans had more familiarity with him, or maybe if the Ricky Rubio draft saga with the Timberwolves wasn’t so fresh in some fans’ minds, we would probably chalk it up to necessary athlete speak.

The main difference between Doncic and some other European stars to make the jump to the NBA is that Doncic has a real shot at being the no. 1 overall pick. The Suns, who hold the first pick, hired Igor Kokoskov to be their next head coach earlier this month. Kokoskov just so happened to be Doncic’s coach on last year’s EuroBasket-winning Slovenian national team. Deandre Ayton also makes sense at no. 1, but if that were to happen, it’s hard to envision the Kings passing up on Doncic at no. 2. (Zach Lowe reported Wednesday that execs joked about how much Kings VP Vlade Divac would pay to move up a spot to nab a player from the former Yugoslavia as soon as Sacramento moved up in the lottery.)

But Doncic has leverage. Because he’s still under contract with Real Madrid, Doncic could use the possibility of signing an extension to force his way to his team of choice. If any team calls his bluff and drafts him anyway, it’d risk watching one of the most exciting European prospects in recent memory deciding to stay put in Spain. There’s precedent for this. When the Suns drafted Bogdan Bogdanovic at the end of the first round in 2014, he was still under contract with Serbian club Partizan. But rather than joining his new NBA team, Bogdanovic signed a deal with Turkish club Fenerbahce. His rights were eventually traded to the Kings in 2016, and in 2017, Divac let it spill that Bogdanovic would join Sacramento that summer … even though Bogdanovic himself was still in season overseas.

Maybe these guys just value focus, taking it one day at a time, and avoiding distractions, you know? Bogdanovic, of course, signed a record deal for an import that summer and went on to have a promising rookie season.

But there have also been several cases of overseas players who never make the jump to the U.S. Fran Vazquez, one of the most storied players in Spanish basketball history, was drafted by the Magic in 2005 and was expected to play for Orlando right away. Instead, he signed with another Spanish club the following season and remained overseas for the rest of his career.

It seems unlikely that Doncic will take that path. He’s ready to be an NBA player right now and could have one of the brightest futures in a league full of young stars. And while he’d be in line for a pay raise with Madrid, he could make about $8 million or $7 million next season if he’s drafted no. 1 or 2 overall. But he very well could use the possibility of staying put to help dictate which team selects him at those draft slots. In a system where players don’t have a say where they start their NBA careers, Doncic holds some decision-making power. There’s no reason he shouldn’t use it.