NBA

NBA Draft Preview: Why Luka Dončić should be the first overall pick

Slovenia's Luka Doncic celebrates during the Eurobasket European Basketball Championship final match against Serbia in Istanbul, Sunday, Sept. 17. 2017. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
NBA Draft Preview: Why Luka Dončić should be the first overall pick

If you follow me on Twitter, you’re probably already well aware of my opinion on Luka Dončić. The (barely) 19-year-old Slovenian has been playing professional basketball in the Spanish Liga ACB — the second-highest level of pro ball — since 16.

Here’s a quick recap of the past year of Luka Dončić:

  1. Won the Eurobasket competition with the Slovenian national team
  2. Became the youngest regular season Euroleague MVP
  3. Led his club, Real Madrid, to the Euroleague championship
  4. Garned the Final Four MVP; the youngest to do so

Simply put: Dončić has accomplished just about everything there is to accomplish in European basketball. He’s already basketball’s most decorated teenager. And he’s just getting started.

Dončić was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital. All-Star Miami Heat point guard Goran Dragić also hails from the same city. His father played professional European ball, and Dončić has done more than follow in his footsteps — he’s creating his own. Dončić signed his first professional contract at 13 years old.

He shows incredible potential as a ballhandler. Although he’ll probably play forward in the NBA, his role with Real Madrid was more akin to playing the point. Think Ben Simmons, but instead of elite athleticism, he has elite shooting. In a league where over-sized playmakers are arguably the most valuable asset a team can have, don’t be shocked if Dončić is the first overall pick.

Let’s take a look at Luka Dončić’s measurables, his strengths, and his weaknesses.


A prototype for today’s NBA

(per Draft Express)

Height: 6’8″

Weight: 228 lbs

Unfortunately, that’s all we have on the prospect at the moment. Dončić was a little busy winning the EuroLeague championship and thus didn’t make it to the NBA draft combine. There’s also the rather important matter of whether or not Dončić does indeed come to the NBA this year, although I have a good feeling he will — more on that later.

Strengths:

  • Dončić produced at an historical rate for his age in his league. His per 36 stats last season (combined EuroLeague and Liga ACB): 21 PTs, 7.6 REBs, 6.7 ASTs, 1.6 STLs, .5 BLK, 46% FG, 31% 3PT, 80% FTs
  • Professional competition. Dončić has been playing against grown men since he was 16 years old, and he’s looked the part. Liga ACB has put a number of former players into the NBA, and the EuroLeague (which is, in essence, a Champions League for basketball) is great prep for the rigors of NBA postseason play. Dončić will have an advantage over his peers, many of whom only played one year of college ball.
  • EuroLeague competition isn’t good enough for you? Alright then. In the EuroBasket competition he played against the likes of Kristaps Porzingis, Jonas Valanciunas, Dario Saric, Pau Gasol, Dennis Schroder, and Nikola Vucevic. Dončić helped lead his national team to the title, averaging 14 points, eight rebounds, and four assists at 18 years old.
  • Excellent court vision. He’s beyond his years at finding open teammates. Especially adept at dancing around screens, driving, and kicking out to find an open teammate on the perimeter. Really reminds me a lot of Manu Ginobili in that department. Good at throwing outlet passes as well. He’s a point guard in a wing’s body.

Dončić shows off his court vision

  • Sneaky functional athleticism and hang time allows him to change his shot in mid-air after taking contact. Shows great finesse on drives. A patient driver, not unlike Ginobili, and always seems to wriggle his way through tight spaces to score at the rim.
  • Dončić is not quite elite at any one facet of his game, but his game is incredibly well-rounded, with no major flaws for opposing teams to pick on.

Weaknesses:

  • Lacks lateral quickness needed to defend opponents in 1-on-1 situations. His length makes up for that a bit, but teams will likely try to get him in iso situations.
  • Tends to play hunched over, especially when driving, which leads to some pretty bad turnovers. While this wasn’t a problem often against European competition, NBA defenders will take advantage of him having his head down by swatting and poking at the ball. Needs to become more flexible.
  • Although Dončić does show some hangtime, he lacks the explosion that the NBA’s elite athletes have. European basketball tends to be more highly skilled, so it remains to be seen how Dončić will fare against NBA-level athleticism.
  • A bit of a volume shooter. Dončić will need to be more judicious in the shots he takes on the NBA level. Not always completely squared when shooting, which could fix a lot for him, mechanically.
  • We have yet to see Dončić display a ‘killer instinct,’ so to speak. He was clearly head-and-shoulders above most other players in his league, so I would’ve expected to see a more dominant performance from someone who is clearly capable of doing so. Considered one of the most advanced offensive prospects in draft history, I would have liked to see more nasty from Dončić.

Me tienes que decir

Although the NBA has changed remarkably over the past five to ten years, the conventional draft logic seems to have remained steady, at least in the minds of many: the best big in the draft should be the one to go first overall. While DeAndre Ayton is a fine player (I’ll be profiling him next), Dončić is, in my opinion, a generational talent.

He should be the first pick in the NBA draft.

But there’s a pretty important part of this that I’ve (purposefully) glossed over to this point: will Dončić even declare for the NBA draft?

Real Madrid’s Luka Doncic dribbles past Fenerbahce’s Brad Wanamaker during their Final Four Euroleague final basketball match between Real Madrid and Fenerbahce in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, May 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

He hasn’t yet. When asked, he responded, “Ι’m not sure if these are the last two games [in EuroLeague]. We have yet to make this decision. Perhaps after the season.”

There have been reports leaked to the media — surely by his camp — that he could opt to stay in Europe. Here’s why I don’t see that happening:

Firstly, as mentioned earlier, Dončić has already accomplished just about everything there is to accomplish in European basketball. He could keep it up and try to win another title, but why? If he’s seriously injured, he’s looking at a loss of millions. Which leads me to my next point.

The average EuroLeague salary is around €1 million — about $1.2 million USD. He’s not even in the top 30 in terms of salaries. While I’m sure he’s paid better than just about any other 19-year-old in the world (especially when you factor in endorsements), the money he could make as the first, second, or third overall pick immediately dwarfs his current paygrade.

So why is he playing coy? The reason, as it often is in big business, is leverage. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony put it best:

“[Doncic] is under contract in Real Madrid. If he doesn’t want to go to Sacramento, he can definitely make things hard on them by saying, ‘Guys if you draft me, I’m going to sign a huge extension, I’m going to make 2 million Euro next year and I’m not coming over until you trade my rights.’

He’s never at any point said 100 percent he’s coming over next year. I think he’d like to, obviously you want to get your rookie-scale contract started, you want to get moving on that second deal four years from now. But he has a lot more leverage in this process than anybody else in this draft.”

And, honestly, he could be forgiven for not wanting to play in basketball hel– I mean, Sacramento.

However, if the Phoenix Suns take a shot at him first overall, it’s hard to see Dončić skipping out on the NBA for another year. Add in the fact that the Suns just hired Igor Kokoskov, who coached Dončić’s Slovenian team to a EuroBasket title in 2017, and it makes a ton of sense for a Dončić + Suns marriage.

We will likely not know until after the draft whether or not Dončić will come to the NBA this off-season. Regardless, he could be a generational talent, so a team will certainly take a shot at him sooner rather than later. Waiting a year or two would be a small price to pay for the boundless potential of Luka Dončić.

 

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