NBA Prospect Watch — Luka Doncic

To understand Luka Doncic, you need to watch him play. The 18 year old combo guard from Slovenia is making waves in basketball circles around the globe, with many predicting him to become a top 2 pick in the 2018 NBA draft. There’s been a lot of bold claims and statements being made about Doncic of late. Is he the best European prospect in the last 20 years? Is he the best European prospect of all time? Is he a foundational piece for a championship contender? Is he a reborn Slovenian Larry Bird? Who knows. I don’t.

Luka was born in February 1999. In September 2012 (at age 13!), he signed a 5 year contract with Real Madrid, one of the top teams in the second best league in the world. He spent time starring in the Real Madrid U-16, U-18 and reserve side until he was called up to the big team in 2015. At age 16, he became the 3rd youngest player to ever debut in the Liga ACB. Throughout the 2015–16 ACB season, he was included as part of the 12 man squad although was unable to get consistent minutes. It was in the 2016–17 season, at the age of 17 that Doncic became a regular part of the rotation of a European powerhouse. During the season, he played 20 mpg and recorded a line of 7.8ppg, 4.4rpg and 3.7apg. Doncic has a game that doesn’t shine in highlight reels. He doesn’t throw down awesome dunks and make hyper-athletic blocks. He just knows how to play the game.

Offensively, Doncic is a human mismatch. He’s a 6’8 point guard. It’s a rare commodity to find someone so tall who has the handles, shooting and vision to be a point guard (spoiler alert: Doncic has all of those). He’s ultra crafty in the pick and roll. His shooting ability forces defenders to go over screens. As the defender tries to navigate their way around the screen, Doncic already starts moving and has the ability to keep his defender on his hip. He uses his body to stay in front of the defender and draw attention from help. This often leaves the screener open to roll downhill to the rim, where Luka’s precision passing can find them cleanly for an easy look.

If the screener isn’t open, it normally means there’s an open shooter lurking around the line and Doncic is terrific at making sure the ball finds its way there.

For someone so young, Doncic shows extreme patience in the pick and roll. If he’s able to blow by his defender, he has a knack for hesitating in the mid range just long enough for doubt to creep into the mind of the rim protector. As soon as the big leaves the hoop, it’s all over. Doncic will find a teammate (often the screener) rolling to an open basket for a layup or dunk.

Just to bamboozle the defence even more, Doncic likes to run back and forth around the pick often in order to completely lose his defender and force the switch. It’s incredibly rare for a player so young to have the smarts to completely and utterly confuse his defender like that. What makes it even more impressive is that he’s doing it to older, more experienced players in a competitive league.

The crazy thing about all of this though? It’s not even the best part of his offensive game. Creating opportunities in transition is where he really adds value. You know how Russell Westbrook loves grabbing rebounds himself and tearing up the court to start a fast break, rather than letting a big get the rebound and pass it to him? Doncic loves to do the same thing. Last season, he averaged 8 rebounds per 36 minutes. Pretty good for a point guard (I guess being 6 inches taller than most other ball handlers helps in that department). Once Doncic brings down the rebound, he’s off to the races. He’s constantly trying to beat the defence back to the rim, looking for a way to create an easy basket before the defence sets. He’s great at spotting shooters or teammates cutting to the rim as he sprints down the floor.

He’s also comfortable attacking the rim himself if there’s an opening.

Unfortunately you can’t score on the fast break every possession though. But Doncic knows this. He reads what the defence is doing and if there’s nothing on offer, he has no problem being patient, pulling back and setting up in the half court.

Doncic loves crashing the boards, on offence and defence. Sometimes he loves it a bit too much though. There were times during the season where he’d get so excited about grabbing a rebound and putting on the gas down the court that he forgot to box out.

His over-ambition sometimes lets others sneak in around him and grab offensive boards. He also loves attacking the offensive glass. Again, his over commitment on the glass meant he occasionally didn’t get back on defence and left his team defending short handed as he tried to play catch up. It’s not all bad when he goes to the glass though. He did create a pile of tip ins and second chance points through his dirty work.

Despite having terrific defensive awareness, Luka does raise some questions on that end of the court. Namely, what position does he defend? He’s not fast enough to defend point guards. Time after time they would blow by him and get to the hoop. All it takes is one screen and Doncic is already well behind the quicker guys on the court.

He also needs to get a lot stronger to defend big wings. Luckily that’s a pretty common problem and one that players normally solve as their bodies develop and they spend time in the NBA. For now, Doncic would be best off defending shooting guards, meaning he’d benefit playing alongside a small, quick defender who can play off the ball (think Avery Bradley, KCP, even Bradley Beal).

Although he’ll likely never be the number 1 defensive option on a good team, he should still be a terrific team defender, even early in his career. He shows remarkable defensive awareness for someone so young. When you watch him defend off the ball, you can see him constantly looking between his man and the ball hander. He’s terrific as a help defender and is incredibly willing to get physical and contest shots at the rim, displaying a good understanding of verticality and contesting shots without fouling.

He also strays into the passing lanes and is terrific at tipping the ball away for a steal.

He is generally pretty good at staying near his man whilst doing all of this, but does have a habit of over-helping occasionally and leaving his man in space.

There are some concerns about Doncic’s athleticism. He’s not particularly fast or strong. His lack of explosiveness may make it difficult to create space from the hyper-athletic defenders in the NBA. I’m not too worried about that. He’s got enough tricks in his bag that he can still get good looks and work his way to the rim. His release is also quite high and relatively quick so he shouldn’t need as much space to shoot as many other players.

Looking into the distance, it’s uncertain how much room he has left to grow. He might never be an elite scorer who can get his shot off whenever he wants. The positive effect he has on his teammates outweighs that though. He should be able to run a very efficient offence if he has shooters around him. His willingness to pass will also encourage his teammates to run the floor, set good picks and roll hard to the rim. They’ll know that they can get rewarded if they do.

Doncic is the best European prospect in recent memory, playing with the poise of a 10 year veteran at just 18 years of age. He has all the tools to be the main cog in an ultra-efficient NBA offence for years to come