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Peer Into Luka Doncic’s NBA Future at the EuroLeague Final Four

The 19-year-old phenom is looking for one more memento before starting his NBA journey: a EuroLeague championship. But it won’t be easy. How he fares will tell us a lot about who he will be at the next level.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Luka Doncic has unfinished business before the NBA draft. The Slovenian phenom, one of two front-runners to be the 2018 no. 1 overall pick, has only one thing left to accomplish overseas: winning a EuroLeague championship. A year ago, at the tender age of 18, he struggled under the bright lights of the EuroLeague Final Four, scoring only six points on 0-of-9 shooting in two games. Doncic isn’t a role player this time around. He’s leading Real Madrid in scoring (16.1 points a game on 46 percent shooting) and he’s second on the team in rebounds (4.8) and assists (4.4). The way he’s dominating at the highest levels of European basketball is a fascinating window into how he should be used in the NBA.

Everything changed for Doncic when Sergio Llull, a 2009 second-round pick who never made it over to the NBA, tore his ACL at EuroBasket last summer. Without Llull, one of the best scoring guards in Europe, Real Madrid head coach Pablo Laso gave Doncic the keys to the offense. At 6-foot-8 and 228 pounds, he has the frame of a power forward and the skill set of a point guard, and he can pick apart a defense off the dribble. They use him like James Harden: According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Doncic gets 47.3 percent of his offense out of the pick-and-roll, and he’s in the 93rd percentile of European players when scoring or passing out of the play. His highlight reel in the two-man game is downright pornographic:

Madrid built its team around Doncic, who is flanked by former NBA players in the prime of their careers. Jeffery Taylor, Rudy Fernandez, Anthony Randolph, and Gustavo Ayon played a combined 16 seasons in the league. Taylor, at 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, is an athletic swingman who cross-switches with Doncic and defends point guards. Fernandez is an elite secondary scorer who spaces the floor for pick-and-rolls between Doncic and Ayon. Randolph, just like he was in the NBA, is the wild card, a talented but enigmatic stretch big man who can do a little bit of everything when he’s engaged.

Much like Donovan Mitchell in Utah, Doncic is in a perfect situation for a young player, surrounded by veterans who understand their roles on a well-coached team. Real Madrid is one of the most high-profile clubs in Europe, and they have spared no expense in building their roster. Many of their bench players (Chasson Randle, Trey Thompkins, Walter Tavares, Ognjen Kuzmic) have gotten cups of coffee in the NBA, and the ones that haven’t (Jaycee Carroll, Facundo Campazzo, and Felipe Reyes) are decorated EuroLeague veterans.

Maybe the most impressive thing about Doncic is how easily he wrested control of the team. Young players in Europe often have a hard time earning playing time on teams without much incentive to develop them, but Doncic is already so good that everyone in Madrid has fallen in line. He doesn’t play like a teenager, nor does he carry himself like a player trying to earn the trust of his older teammates. Doncic is a hothead who plays with a bit of an edge. Some NBA executives love his attitude, while others worry about how he’ll respond to adversity. If one of his teammates makes a mistake, he’ll let them know about it. Watch him yell at Thompkins, who is nearly eight years his senior, for turning over the ball and not getting the ball back to him in this sequence:

Doncic’s lack of initial burst and quickness is the other worry in the eyes of scouts. He struggles to create separation off the dribble, and he might not be as successful against defenses who can switch screens and put a longer athletic defender on him, as opposed to more conservative schemes which create driving and passing lanes for the ball handler. Pressuring Doncic with an elite athlete is exactly how Panathinaikos attacked him in the quarterfinals of the EuroLeague playoffs. They won Game 1 of the best-of-five series by throwing multiple bodies at Doncic, beating him up as much as possible, and using Thanasis Antetokounmpo, the older brother of Giannis who had a brief stint in the NBA, to hound him for 94 feet. Doncic never got comfortable, and he finished with 10 points and one assist on 2-of-5 shooting:

The Madrid-Panathinaikos matchup had shades of last month’s Heat-76ers first-round series, where the less talented team tried to rattle younger stars with physicality. The difference is that European refs tend to let a lot more go than they do in the NBA. Despite the stereotypes, the European game is really rough-and-tumble, which allows players like Thanasis to grab and hold more talented guards like Doncic. He was more than happy to mix it up in return, cracking Thanasis with an elbow in the opening moments of Game 2. “The EuroLeague playoffs defensively are tougher than what Luka will ever face in the NBA,” one European scout told me. “There’s a lot of contact and physical matchups.”

The big adjustment Madrid made over the course of the series, which it won 3-1, was moving Doncic off the ball and using him as a decoy to stretch the defense. They are a well-coached team with interchangeable parts who can shape-shift quickly. A lot of that starts with Doncic, who is comfortable running point, catching and firing off pin-downs like a shooting guard, and finding cutters out of the high post like a big man. Llull made his season debut in Game 3 of the Panathinaikos series, and Doncic quickly adapted to a role as a secondary ball handler similar to the role he had on the gold-medal-winning Slovenian national team at EuroBasket, where he played off Goran Dragic. Doncic was in the 93rd percentile of scorers in Europe when coming around screens off the ball:

His ceiling at the next level will depend on his 3-point shot. He’s shooting more 3s this season compared with last, but his percentages have gone down:

Luka Doncic’s Shooting Numbers

Season Games 3PA 3P% FTA FT%
Season Games 3PA 3P% FTA FT%
2016-2017 67 2.9 34.7 2.1 81.9
2017-2018 59 4.8 31 4.9 80.2

At this stage in his career, Doncic is more shotmaker than pure shooter. He took 73.7 percent of his shots off the dribble this season, compared with only 26.3 percent off the catch, and his catch-and-shoot numbers are better when he’s guarded (1.056 points per possession) than when he’s open (0.959 points per possession). He has a smooth and repeatable shot motion without any clear mechanical flaws, so he should become a more consistent shooter as he gets older, but there’s certainly no guarantee. Without an elite first step, Doncic needs the threat of his jumper to open up driving lanes. He has shown the ability to make a lot of tough shots with a hand in his face, which will have to continue for him to succeed as a primary option in the next level.

The other variable is his physical development. He already has NBA-caliber size, but he has been playing constantly for the past 18 months, across multiple leagues and international tournaments. He hasn’t had an offseason to devote to the weight room. If he gets to an NBA team with a good strength and conditioning program, he should be able to fill out, which will allow him to bully smaller defenders at the point of attack, even if he can’t blow by them. Doncic knows how to take advantage of a size mismatch, like he does in this sequence against Nick Calathes, a 6-foot-6 former NBA point guard:

The EuroLeague has a hybrid playoff system, with eight teams playing in best-of-five series in the quarterfinals à la the NBA, and then narrowing to a single-elimination Final Four à la the NCAA. Madrid will play CSKA Moscow on Friday in Belgrade, with the winner advancing to play the winner of Zalgiris Kaunas and the defending champions, Fenerbahce, on Sunday. Moscow will throw Will Clyburn, an athletic 6-foot-7 swingman from Iowa State, on Doncic. Clyburn has comparable size and speed to most NBA small forwards, so it will be an interesting test of Doncic’s ability to create off the dribble. One thing to watch will be how much Doncic shares a backcourt with Llull, which would move him off the ball, or Fernandez, which would keep him on it.

Madrid doesn’t use Doncic as a small-ball power forward much. Laso has four NBA-caliber big men in Ayon, Randolph, Thompkins, and Tavares, and he likes to use them as screeners and playmakers, in the same way the Warriors use David West and Zaza Pachulia. Doncic is more than big enough to guard NBA power forwards, and using him in a spread floor with a multiple playmakers might be the best way to maximize his skills in the NBA. He would fit in perfectly in a system like the Celtics’, where players cycle on and off the ball. While he’s not great defensively at this stage in his career, he has enough size and speed to keep from being targeted at the next level, even if he never becomes a stopper.

Doncic told reporters on Thursday that he wasn’t sure if these last games of the season would be his final EuroLeague games. His comments were immediately interpreted as a play at determining his future NBA team, but it’s hard to know what to make of his intent considering he was being asked during the run-up to the EuroLeague Final Four. It’s the biggest stage in European basketball, and winning a EuroBasket and EuroLeague championship before the age of 20 would be a remarkable achievement—Drazen Petrovic didn’t accomplish both until he was 25. If Madrid wins this weekend, there will be nothing left for him overseas. Doncic is a 19-year-old basketball prodigy who needs a new challenge. He’s already done so much at such a young age that it’s hard to put a ceiling on how good he can be.