You need to know about Luka Dončić
Meet Europe’s best basketball prodigy since Ricky Rubio
In Has Been Sports’ 2nd installment of its “You need to know about [Prodigy X]” series, we travel overseas into the heart of Europe and home of the First Lady — Slovenia — to take a closer look at quite possibly the best European basketball prospect ever: Luka Dončić.
If you missed the 1st installment of the “You need to know about [Prodigy X]” series — featuring high school basketball sensation Zion Williamson — click on the link below. Since the article was published, Williamson has taken the internet and social media by storm with his gravity-defying dunks. You need to know about him — seriously.
The Who/What/Where/Why/When of Luka Dončić
Who is he?
Luka Dončić is the most prodigious European NBA prospect since Ricky Rubio. Born on February 28, 1999 in Slovenia, Dončić started dominating the youth European basketball scene from an early age — signing with the Real Madrid farm team when he was just 13 years old. He continued to make major headlines by becoming just the 3rd-youngest professional in the Liga ACB history at the age of 16. He’s continued his ascension to greatness this season — playing heavy minutes and putting up impressive numbers while helping to lead Real Madrid to the best record in the league. Did I mentioned he won’t turn 18 until next week?
What makes him special?
This 6'7 Slovenian has one of the more unique games I can remember. His combination of size, excellent vision, playmaking abilities, and efficient shooting makes for something you just don’t see everyday — especially in a 17-year-old.
As far as NBA comparisons go, I see some Jimmy Butler with a some European flair— bet you weren’t ready for that kind of Cross-Racial Comparison, were ya Bill Simmons?
Dončić is not yet the chiseled, elite-level athlete that Butler is, but he might get there someday. Remember, Dončić isn’t playing against kids his age in those videos above — he’s playing against grown-ass men. His ability to blow by defenders and play above-the-rim as a teenager against high-level competition is pretty rare.
Dončić’s creativity off the dribble and passing are extremely impressive as well and are sure to draw some Manu Ginobili comparisons as we get closer to the 2018 NBA Draft. As with many star European prospects, Dončić has a flair for the dramatic play and has effectively toed the line between dynamic and turnover-prone — averaging 4 assists/game and 2 turnovers/game in 20 minutes/game this season.
Finally, Dončić’s is a very efficient scorer as one of the secondary options on his team — reminiscent of Butler earlier in his career. Dončić averages 8+ points/game with 48% fg/40% 3fg/83% ft splits. While the raw averages don’t jump off the page at you — you have to remember that EuroLeague games are only 40 minutes long and his team’s top scorer only averages 15 points/game.
Where will he get drafted?
Dončić is a surefire Top-5 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. DraftExpress.com — the premiere NBA mock draft website — has him currently projected to go #2 overall. Assuming he remains healthy and his game continues to evolve (more on that in a bit), he’ll be in the mix for #1.
Why is he so important?
He’s important because Europe hasn’t had a prospect generating this kind of buzz since Ricky Rubio started playing professionally at age 14. Rubio is a very good point guard in the NBA — however, because he never learned how to shoot, he never blossomed into the Steve Nash x Jason Kidd-type player we’d thought we were getting when we saw glimpses of him on YouTube or witnessed a composed 17-year-old outplay some of the best point guards in the NBA in the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal game. Dončić represents a 2nd chance for Europe at developing a world-renown prodigy.
(For those of you screaming “What about Kristaps Porzingis and The Greek Freak??” right now — Porzingis was not a “can’t-miss” prospect by any means. Yes, he was drafted in the Top-5, but just look at the way Knicks fans reacted to that pick (a kid was sobbing on national television because his team had just picked some unknown Latvian). No one knew about Giannis Antetokounmpo either — probably because he was playing in what amounted to a YMCA league in Greece the year before he declared for the draft).
Dončić is also important because the NBA will soon say goodbye to the greatest European player ever — Dirk Nowitzki — and a handful of other great European talents — Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili. The league needs a young influx of overseas stars. Studs like Porzingis, Antetokounmpo, and Nikola Jokić are a great start — Dončić could be the exclamation point.
When will he play in the NBA?
This is the all-important question for Dončić’s future — he needs to come to the NBA immediately after he is drafted in 2018. He needs to be exposed to the NBA game and lifestyle sooner rather than later. He needs to develop on a bad team (unless the Celtics draft him with their Brooklyn pick) where he can play through his mistakes and continue to expand his game. He doesn’t need to be pigeonholed into a role on Real Madrid like some of the great European prospects before him. I mean look no further than The Greek Freak and Porzingis — they came to the NBA immediately, took their bruises early on, and now are budding (or in The Greek Freak’s case, already) superstars.
The mindset in Europe is much different than the mindset in the NBA. European teams all have a “win-now” mindset — there’s no tanking, no draft, no playing raw prospects and allowing them to learn through their mistakes. If you can help your team win today, you will play. If not, you will have to develop during your game during practice.
The NBA, on the other hand, is far more invested in its young, talented prospects. NBA teams will allow young players to play through their mistakes, put them in crucial late-game situations throughout the long 82-game regular season, and assign members of their coaching staff to work with that young player exclusively. In today’s NBA, if an elite prospect never develops, that’s on the player; not the organization (unless he plays for the Kings).
Take a look at Brandon Jennings. Jennings was an elite prospect coming out of high school and decided to forego college (granted, scholastics played a major part in this decision) and play overseas for a season. While he definitely matured and improved his decision-making in Europe, he barely got off the bench in games because his coaches didn’t trust him. His coaches didn’t give him sympathy minutes because he was a big name — he had to earn every minute he played. Had he gone to college or the NBA D-League (now the G-League), he would have started, played heavy minutes, and had the offense revolve around him.
Dončić is obviously in a different position than Jennings was, so let’s compare him to another hotshot prospect who played on Real Madrid — Nikola Mirotić. Mirotić was basically the same age as Dončić when he first started getting playing time on Real Madrid. Once he turned 18, he declared for the NBA Draft, but elected to stay overseas until he was 23. Although he had tremendous success for Real Madrid, as the Bulls quickly learned, he wasn’t the star prospect they thought he was by the time he came to the NBA. His game had plateaued in Europe because he had carved out an important role on a great team and wasn’t afforded the opportunities to expand his game through trial and error. Had he come to the NBA as a 19 or 20-year-old, maybe the Bulls (or whichever team owned his rights at the time) play him 25–30 minutes a night, run the offense through him and let him learn from his mistakes (like the Bucks did with The Greek Freak and the Knicks have kind of done with Porzingis). Maybe Mirotić turns into the next Kevin Love instead of an 8th man off the bench on a middling Bulls team.
Finally, if you are Dončić, look no further than the prodigy before you — Ricky Rubio. Rubio was drafted as an 18-year-old but didn’t to come to the NBA until he was just about to turn 21. Rubio shot about 37% when he was 14 years old; shot about 37% when he was 21 years old; and shoots about 37% now that he is 26 years old. Perhaps he was destined to shoot 37% his entire life. Or, perhaps the rest of his game was so advanced during his years in Spain that he never had to become a serviceable shooter. Perhaps he was so solidified in his role as a distributing point guard and his team was too good to have him shoot the ball in games every time he was open. Perhaps if he had come to the NBA as an 18-year-old, the lowly T-Wolves would have told him “Ricky, shoot the ball every single time you are open — we don’t care if you miss every shot. Our team stinks now, but in 4–5 years, we are going to need you to be a confident shooter when we get enough talent around you to compete.” Imagine how unstoppable the T-Wolves’ offense would be right now if Rubio could hit 40% of his 3-point shots? Instead, he remains one of the least confident and worse shooters in the NBA history.
Now that you’ve been debriefed on Luka Dončić, enjoy (and try to follow) this gem of a video: