Best International NBA Draft Prospect- Luka Doncic
The 2018 NBA Draft is less than three weeks away, but the Phoenix Suns, winners of the NBA’s Draft Lottery, have been on the clock since May 15th. Long before we knew which team would have the ping pong balls bounce their way, the consensus top two players in the 2018 Draft class have been University of Arizona Center DeAndre Ayton, considered by most scouts to be a sure-thing, and Luka Doncic, arguably the most heralded international draft prospect ever.
Even if they weren’t familiar with his game, Luka Doncic has been a name, albeit a usually mispronounced one, that NBA fans have been familiar with for at least two years now. Doncic signed his first professional contract when he was twelve years old. For comparison, I was going to summer recreation and dominating the four square scene there when I was twelve. Doncic made his debut for Real Madrid when he was sixteen, and he has since won numerous ACB League and Euroleague awards and titles. Last summer, as a member of the Slovenian National Team, Doncic was named to the Eurobasket 2017 All-Tournament Team, making him the youngest player to earn that distinction since Arvydas Sabonis did so as an 18 year old in 1983. After finishing in 12th place in 2015, Slovenia won the 2017 Eurobasket Tournament.
The accolades are impressive and the hype surrounding Doncic is real, but there are still reservations about whether he will produce at the level a high lottery pick is expected to. The fact that Doncic has been playing professionally in Europe and is of Slovenian descent is, in my opinion, the biggest reason he’s not considered the consensus #1 prospect this year. If Doncic was excelling in the NCAA instead of the Euroleague, and if fans were accustomed to seeing him play on the occasional Big Monday and each Saturday afternoon, I think we’d have a different idea of him as a prospect. Instead, there is still a stigma about top tier international prospects.
This perception has gradually over time, but for every sure-thing Top 5 caliber international prospect like Pau Gasol, Kristaps Porzingis and Yao Ming, there is a sure-thing Top 5 caliber international prospect like Darko Milicic, Andrea Bargnani and Nikoloz Tskitishvili. For every gem landed outside of the top ten like Tony Parker, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo, there are at least twice as many busts like Fran Vazquez, Žarko Čabarkapa and Frederic Weis.
The hit or miss nature of picking international prospects isn’t limited to only international prospects … that’s the nature of the draft itself. For every Anthony Davis there is a Hasheem Thabeet. For every Kevin Durant there is a Michael Beasley. For every LeBron James there is a Kwame Brown. It’s just how this process works. It’s a crap shoot that no team has mastered over an extended period of time, and it’s foolish to think that anybody ever will. With that said, it’s understandable why most scouts agree that Doncic is a can’t miss prospect.
When veteran Real Madrid Point Guard Sergio Llull tore his ACL early in the Euroleague season, Doncic, a 6’7″ 230 lb. swingman, took on point forward duties and thrived. Doncic averaged 22.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists per 36 minutes in Euroleague play this year, and he carried Real Madrid to their first Euroleague title since 2015.
Doncic has long showed promise as a passer and facilitator offensively, but he looked like an honest to God point guard running the show for Real Madrid this year. Doncic has a feel for the game that is rare for anybody, let alone a 19 year old, and his size allows him to see the angles that exist over the top of defenses. He carved up opponents in a spread pick and roll sets, and that’s likely what he’ll be asked to do in the NBA if he’s asked to be a playmaker. On a personal note, Doncic’s passing and feel for the game is what initially attracted me to him as a pro prospect.
Doncic is a savvy cutter, creative attacking the basket off the dribble, and his jumper is fine mechanically. He shot 36 percent from downtown across all competitions for Real Madrid over the last calendar year, which is a dip from season’s past, but more of those attempts were unassisted than in previous seasons. There is reason to believe he will continue to trend upward as a long distance shooter, especially if he plays off the ball more in his first few NBA seasons than he was able to last season for Real Madrid. Postitionally, Doncic will come into the league classified as either a Shooting Guard or Small Forward and until he gets used to the pace of the NBA game and the higher level of athleticism on the floor that’s where he’ll probably operate offensively, but he’ll be capable of playing both on and off the ball. There really isn’t anything he won’t be able to do offensively eventually. In time, he’ll likely be a well above average scorer from all spots on the floor.
Though he doesn’t possess traditional elite athleticism, Doncic can be described as deceptively athletic. He doesn’t jump out of the gym, glide down the floor with long strides or blow by opponents with a lightning quick first-step. He’ll never be able to defend the premier perimeter scorers in the league, but he’ll get by as an average defensive player based on effort and IQ alone. He plays hard on defense and he’s smart enough to be in correct position off the ball.
Now, to answer the titular question … it’s obviously a longshot that Doncic will eventually become the greatest international player ever. Projecting that sort of career on any player who is only 19 years old is both foolish and unfair, especially since that’s such a tall mountain to climb. But Doncic is certainly in the discussion for the most heralded and hyped international prospect ever. Only six international players (for clarification, I mean internationally born players who did not attend college in the United States) have been top four picks in the NBA Draft. If Doncic falls past the fourth pick, it means that at least four General Managers will have to go to sleep each night with that bad decision on their resume. Doncic is that good, and that much of a sure-thing.