Luka Doncic is the best 18-year-old basketball player you’re just getting to know, and he’s getting ready to take on the NBA.
Luka Doncic is a star. The wunderkind from Ljubljana, Slovenia is just 18 years old, yet he is already one of the best young basketball players in the world.
Over this past month, Doncic (pronounced dawn-chich) had the eyes of the world watching him and former All-NBA performer Goran Dragic lead the Slovenian National Team in EuroBasket 2017. Playing against former and future NBA All-Stars like Marc Gasol and Kristaps Porzingis, Doncic more than held his own during the run to Slovenia’s first EuroBasket title this past Sunday.
While EuroBasket may have been Doncic’s biggest international audience to date, he has already become one Europe’s top prospects. Heralded as potentially the greatest talent from an entire continent, Doncic has slowly gained a cult-like following with fans from all over the world. Before he becomes an overnight celebrity next summer when Adam Silver calls his name, now is the perfect time to get to know basketball’s next great European prospect.
Today, Doncic remains a mysterious figure for much of the NBA. Many hardcore fans have heard his name and maybe even seen a YouTube clip or two of him dominating for Slovenia or Real Madrid, but most know little more than surface information about him.
Last year, Doncic was the only player in the EuroLeague to average 15 points, eight assists, and eight rebounds per 40 minutes. Turning 18 just halfway through the season, Doncic was named the 2016-17 Spanish ACB Best Young Player, and, alongside Spanish legend Sergio Lull, took Real Madrid to a second-place finish in Liga ACB and a Copa del Rey championship.
Within the Spanish basketball world, Doncic has already established himself as a dominant force, but EuroBasket gave him one of his first opportunities to make his name known across the world. While Dragic was Slovenia’s undisputed star, Doncic was named to the All-Tournament team and averaged 14.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in Slovenia’s title run.
You will be forgiven if you struggle at first to identify Doncic on the court if you’ve never seen him play before. Unlike recent European prospects like Kristaps Porzingis or Giannis Antetokounmpo, Doncic doesn’t possess physical or athletic prowess that jumps off the screen.
In terms of NBA players, he’s a pretty normal-looking dude. He’s 6’8” with a standard wingspan who can explode for dunks when he needs to, but plays below the rim most of the time. It’s almost weird to have to say this, but it’s not Doncic’s athleticism that makes him such an exciting prospect, it’s his talent. There’s a rare fluidity and ease to his game that you don’t usually see for a player at his age.
He can seamlessly flip the switch from bursting past slower players to bullying smaller guards at a moment’s notice. He has the special combination of a floor general’s mind in the body of a forward. He is fully capable of leading an offense one possession and then being a dangerous threat off the ball on the next. Even with his ever-changing role for Real Madrid, Doncic averaged more than five assists while shooting 36.4% from deep.
Had Doncic come on the scene a decade ago, the fact that he doesn’t have a clear, defined position would be a red flag; today, his versatility is his greatest strength. The modern trend of “position-less” basketball makes Doncic an extremely valuable commodity as he gives teams incredible lineup flexibility.
That versatility connects to Doncic’s most exciting (and possibly frustrating) feature: there is no perfect NBA comparison. He’s not the European “version” of your favorite All-Star, nor does his skin color immediately make him the next Gordon Hayward. His game isn’t quite like any player we have seen before him and while that isn’t to say he’s a better prospect than any comparison you make, it does make his future extremely intriguing.
If a comparison had to be made, a very good one that stuck out to me was an “offensive Draymond Green.” He’s not a revolutionary talent in one area or another, but the combination of everything he does on the court gives him the potential to be great.
Green’s feel for the game and anticipation help make up for his pedestrian athleticism and turn him into a DPOY. Even at such a young age, Doncic appears to have a similar feel for the game. Like Green, he won’t become an All-Star by relying on athleticism or physicality alone, but has the skill and ability to reach those heights.
When Doncic becomes one of the first players selected in next summer’s draft, his expectations will be through the roof. Ten years ago, drafting a guy from a city you can’t pronounce in a country you’d struggle to find on a map would draw ridicule from the crowd and bring pressure on the front office; today, drafting a foreign player so high brings a different form of pressure.
The overwhelming success of recent European imports like Porzingis, Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, and Rudy Gobert have brought expectations for foreign prospects sky-high. The mystery of European prospects used to carry skepticism, now it brings extraordinary expectations.
For some players, that pressure will prove to be too much to handle. Doncic isn’t one of those players. After one of his better EuroBasket performances, Doncic was quoted as saying, “I want to be the hero of the game, you know?” When Dragic was asked what his opinion of the 18-year-old was, he answered, “Mark my words: He’s gonna be one of the best in the whole world.”
We’ve seen him handle NBA-caliber talent on Europe’s biggest stage. We’ve seen him be one of the best players on one of Europe’s best teams at the age of 18. Doncic has faced and aced every test he’s been given thus far into his career, and before long, he’ll be ready to take on the NBA as well.
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