There is less than one week remaining for the NBA’s top 2018 draft prospects to conduct their final team workouts and interviews. As players begin getting fitted for suits and deciding what design they want stitched into their jacket lining for the big day, there is a specter looming, its presence made conspicuous by its absence from the festivities. Luka Doncic, a likely top-five selection, is nowhere to be seen — in the U.S., at least.
Doncic is currently playing for Real Madrid in his second consecutive ACB Finals, the best-of-five championship series for the second-best international league in the world. This comes roughly a month after leading Madrid to a title in the EuroLeague, the second-best basketball league in the world, full stop. In fact, Doncic runs the risk of not showing up for the NBA draft at all. Should the series against Kirolbet Baskonia go the distance, a series-clinching Game 5 in Madrid would fall on June 22, the day after the draft. Doncic would arguably be the most high-profile prospect to skip out on draft proceedings since David Robinson no-showed in New York in 1987; the no. 1 overall pick was in Washington, D.C., having a meal with vice president George H.W. Bush.
Real Madrid signed Doncic to a multiyear contract when he was 13; the NBA might have been in his destiny, but how could he have seen the forest for the trees at that age? The ACB and EuroLeague were the main objectives before him. Some of the highest-rated recruits in America can go through the entire development system from high school and AAU to the NCAA to the professional ranks — and for the rest of their careers not come close to the accolades Doncic has already amassed as a teenager. From Madrid’s U-18 team to the reserve team to the senior team, each level was a new daunting benchmark to be cleared as a newly minted young professional. Each level Doncic has conquered in almost no time at all. In a way, Doncic is living his best life twice. He gets to do it all over again in the NBA. He’s barely had time to catch his breath.
Since the start of the 2016–17 ACB season on September 30, 2016, till the end of the Finals, Doncic will have played at least 161 games against the best talent Europe has to offer. (For reference, since the start of 2016, Deandre Ayton has played in 106, of varying levels of competitiveness.) The biggest reprieve Doncic has had over that span was a two-month gap between the end of the 2017 ACB Finals in mid-June and the start of Eurobasket 2017 at the end of August. During that summer siesta and the one prior, he traveled to P3, the renowned sports science laboratory in Santa Barbara, California, for a few weeks. He’s visited Dr. Marcus Elliott, P3’s founder, every year since he was 16, and the lab has collected deep biometric data on Doncic’s growth, and physical and athletic development each year. “He’s a great kid — truly seemed more like a typical Santa Barbara surfer, volleyball kid,” Elliott told me. “Thoughtful, interested, happy.”
Those moments away from basketball must be exceedingly scarce. At 19, Doncic has already been on some of the biggest stages in professional basketball multiple times over. It’s hard to fathom the level of focus it requires to accomplish everything he’s done thus far. In mid-May, in the lead-up to the EuroLeague Final Four, reporters asked whether these would be his last two games in the league. “We have yet to make this decision,” Doncic said. “Perhaps after the season.” It was immediately speculated that Doncic’s statement was a pointed gesture of leverage, subtly affirming that he and his agent can, to a degree, set the rules of engagement at the next level. But is it so hard to believe that he was simply doing what all professional athletes are asked to do by staying in the moment? Doncic would go on to win the EuroLeague Final Four MVP award, in addition to the MVP award he won for the season as a whole. Even now, as other top prospects make the pre-draft rounds, he’s still tending to the day-to-day atop the Spanish summit.
The Slovenian phenom they call “Wonder Boy” is caught between worlds in more ways than one. Doncic finds himself as the model of both old-school and new-school thinking: In his worst moments, he appears to confirm all the stereotypes that have plagued European prospects for decades; in his best, he offers a glimpse into a crystal-clear future of omnipositional play. He combines the countenance of a point guard with the body of a new-age power forward. He is a genius-level passer, simultaneously comfortable creating out of the pick-and-roll and creating space for himself running off screens and cuts. He has a preternatural sense of space and how best to use the players around him to create scoring opportunities. There’s a doe-eyed wonder to his game in the open floor; even some of his turnovers are must-see:
While Doncic did not take part in May’s NBA draft combine, P3 measured him last summer at 6-foot-8, 228 pounds, with a greater standing reach (8-foot-9.5) than every non-big tested with the exception of Kevin Knox and Keita Bates-Diop, both of whom will assuredly spend time at the 4 in the NBA.
Doncic may also end up playing some in NBA frontcourts. He has never been used as the roll man in the pick-and-roll in his pro career, according to Synergy Sports, but Doncic has both the requisite size to set a solid screen and the vision to make quick decisions on a short roll in mismatches. He can also operate within inverted offenses. While we love to mourn the death of the post-up, less heralded is our appreciation of its mutualistic benefactor in the entry pass; Doncic’s size, timing, touch, vision, and precision would instantly make him a post player’s best friend, regardless of position.
The myriad theoretical roles he can play very quickly bleed into one another, crossing positional lines and expectations. Which is exactly why it’s so easy to envision him on the court with just about any combination of players. His defense might be a surprise for skeptics: He has excellent reaction time, the size and discipline to close out on players effectively, and an uncanny understanding of when to rotate in off-ball situations. In an NBA where cross-matching defensive assignments have never been more commonplace, the only limits to where Doncic can be situated might be in the imagination of the coaching staff.
There may be more restrictions on how he’ll fit into the league’s hierarchy, though. The sheer amount of experience he’s accrued in the past three years gives him as high a floor as any prospect in recent memory. But Doncic doesn’t fit neatly into any of the star archetypes that have served as organizing principles for how we watch the NBA. He is, at best, an unremarkable athlete whose main best-case comparisons don’t quite line up with who Doncic is. He doesn’t have peak Manu Ginobili’s first-person-out-of-an-escape-room wiliness; he doesn’t have Gordon Hayward’s ability to seamlessly transition from the lateral to vertical plane on closeout drives, seemingly floating toward layups. It’s the area of Doncic’s game that has the highest burden of proof, one where no amount of the “EuroLeague is a much higher level of competition than the NCAA” haranguing can clear.
The closest stylistic forebear I’ve ever seen to Doncic’s play is Brandon Roy. The former Portland Trail Blazers superstar often turned possessions into tic-tac-toe, baiting his defender into the wrong spots on the floor and capitalizing in the sliver of space he had to exploit. Doncic takes that methodology and adds a supremely confident shooter from damn near anywhere behind the line (even as his percentages have plummeted as this season has progressed).
True to 2018 form, Doncic hunts for mismatches in the pick-and-roll and has no qualms pulling up for a 3 in a defender’s face. He plays with the poise of someone in the prime of his career, but flashes a smart-aleck personality in his game that betrays his age. He thinks he’s smarter than his defender; he’s generally right. In Real Madrid’s 94–90 loss in Game 1 on Wednesday, Doncic found himself guarded by Kirolbet’s Janis Timma, an athletic Latvian wing who was drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies with the no. 60 pick in 2013. It was effective: Timma roughly shares Doncic’s dimensions and did a good job of keeping a body on him the entire game (Doncic finished shooting 4-for-13 in the game, missing all five of his 3-point attempts). Luka still had time to force Timma to fly out of position on several occasions.
It’ll be a different story in the NBA. Those fragments of time that playmakers have to both identify and capitalize on are often imperceptible in the NBA; whether Doncic has the requisite athleticism to extend the pocket or increase his margin for error is a legitimate concern.
It also might be the only concern, albeit one that pinpoints exactly the caliber of player Doncic can become, and whether or not he’s worth a top selection that should in theory yield a superstar-level talent. Physical development will be one of the most important aspects of investing in Doncic. He noticeably put on some weight during the ACB and EuroLeague seasons, which affected his elusiveness on drives; his shooting numbers (which have fallen off a cliff in the second half of the season) may have also suffered because of fatigue. P3 athletes who have played in Europe have told Elliott that there is little to no attention paid to lifting or power development of any sort in their professional leagues. Trimming Doncic down and focusing on his explosiveness could unlock a different player than what we’ve seen out of Luka recently.
P3’s publicly disclosed data suggest some unorthodoxy to Doncic’s brand of athleticism, akin to a player like James Harden, whose ability to accelerate may be nothing special, but whose ability to stop on a dime is world-class. Doncic’s lateral acceleration numbers from 2017 were in the 71st percentile of all NBA players whom P3 has tested. His slide agility drill results produced times that “outpace most NBA guards tested at P3.”
The advancements in international scouting over the past decade have altered the league’s talent pool considerably, and the success of recent overseas draftees have shattered long-held beliefs about what can and should be expected from such players. But the notion of drafting internationally has always been steeped in exoticism. Arguably the most common trope in the NBA draft’s past 20-plus years is the discovery of a lottery-bound European big man with the skills of a guard, forged in a developmental system that prizes well-rounded perimeter play. The vast majority of international players drafted into the NBA are big men; height has historically been the league’s most precious commodity, and the allure of attaining a player with a different base skill set from the NBA’s positional norms has often been seen as the cherry on top. It’s an inversion that has gone only one way.
Much rarer is the lottery-bound European guard. Doncic’s fate aside, there have been only five European guards drafted in the lottery: Frank Ntilikina (2017), Mario Hezonja (2015), Ricky Rubio (2009), Thabo Sefolosha (2006), and Mickael Pietrus (2003). Four of the five were considered at least above-average athletes relative to the position they played; Rubio, the fifth, was touted for many of the reasons Doncic is celebrated today: impeccable vision and poise, and a near-unprecedented level of success at an exceptionally young age.
Last July, our own Jonathan Tjarks talked to a statistical analyst for an NBA franchise about Doncic. “My model has him as the second-best player in the world outside of the NBA,” the analyst said. “If I was running a team at the top of the draft, I’d be doing everything in my power to get him.” That was before Luka cemented his legacy as one of the greatest young basketball stars in European history — before the all-league first-teams, the three MVP awards across both domestic and international leagues (and a cute EuroLeague Rising Star award for good measure). A seal was broken in 2006 when Andrea Bargnani became the first European player to be the no. 1 overall selection in an NBA draft. The distinction has remained untouched ever since. Odds are high that Doncic won’t be the one to disrupt it, but he did just about everything possible to force himself into that conversation.