With the draft a month away, it’s time to take a more detailed look at some of the top prospects. Let’s start things off with a look at international sensation Luka Doncic, the one they call “Wonderboy.”
If you’ve read this site much at all recently, chances are you’ve heard the name Luka Doncic. But if the name is all you know, let’s start from the top.
Doncic hails from Slovenia (formerly a part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), which for the geographically-challenged like me is a small country of about 2 million people, snuggled in central Europe and immediately east of Italy. Luka was born in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia and its largest city, which has also produced NBA players Goran Dragic and the now-retired Radoslav Nesterovic.
Luka’s father Sasha Doncic was a professional basketball player in Slovenia, and at an early age it became apparent Luka would follow in his footsteps. Doncic was a precocious star on the local circuit, consistently outperforming players three or even four years older. When Doncic was 13, he signed a multi-year contract with Real Madrid, one of the premiere clubs of the Spanish ACB league. He made his debut just two months after his 16th birthday, becoming the third-youngest player ever to debut in ACB play (Ricky Rubio was the youngest at 14).
The following season, Doncic received a much larger role with Real Madrid, occasionally even starting. For someone still shy of 18, this was tremendously unusual, and Doncic was at this point firmly on NBA radars as a future draft prospect. He won the Euroleague Rising Star Award (the first of two) in May of 2017, and that summer led the Slovenian National Team along with Goran Dragic to a shocking upset in Eurobasket, winning Slovenia’s first Eurobasket gold.
Rejoining Real Madrid for the 2017-18 season, Doncic was quickly forced to assume a principal role as star guard Sergio Llull went down with an injury. Doncic became the primary ball handler and flourished, dominating both ACB and Euroleague (again, this was against opponents much older and more experienced), and despite some ups and downs during the season, Doncic claimed Euroleague MVP and Final Four MVP as Real Madrid upset defending Euroleague champions Fenerbahce. He also won his second straight Rising Star Award.
If none of this makes any sense to you, let me simplify: no 19-year-old basketball player has ever had this kind of resume. Doncic has had one of the most spectacular 12 month stretches of any European player in decades, and he did it as one of the youngest players competing at that level. The ACB and Euroleague are littered with former and future NBA players, and Doncic has several years playing against them under his belt. It’s difficult to imagine there possibly being a more NBA-ready player at his age, and certainly not one coming from the NCAA ranks.
Doncic is best with the ball in his hands, but he’s also a smart cutter and is developing as a shooter. Right now, he is better shooting off the dribble, but he has solid mechanics and a strong free-throw percentage (around 80 percent over 200 games played), suggesting in time he can be a weapon spotting up. He doesn’t have elite athleticism, but he’s a superb dribbler and is very crafty and deceptive with the ball. He got to the free-throw line regularly in Europe and while he might not have quite the same success against longer, quicker athletes, his hesitation dribbles, pump fakes and quick release will play at any level.
(If you want to hear more on Doncic listen to the Locked On Mavericks episode)
Defensively, some knock Doncic for being just an average athlete (don’t fall into the trap of thinking that, because he’s a European white guy, he’s just a floor-bound stiff, though), but it’s worth noting that Doncic plays hard on this end and has good instincts. At his size, with experience, he should be a capable team defender who won’t kill your defense, and teams can probably move him around a bit, depending on the matchup. Doncic rebounds well enough that some small-ball 4 action could easily be in his future, in short bursts.
Fit with the Mavericks
Doncic is the kind of player that could really fit on any team, because of his size, skill and versatility, but he would be a tremendous match with Rick Carlisle and the Dallas Mavericks. At 6’8, he plays like a big point guard, with exceptional vision and lots of experience running pick-and-roll action, a staple of NBA play and the Mavericks’ offense especially.
To the notion that Doncic is a no-go for Dallas because of Dennis Smith Jr., I can only say: have you been watching the NBA lately? Every good team out there has multiple ball handlers/scorers, and they need them, because teams are way too good now at taking away the top option. Think about the perimeter duos Dallas has run out under Carlisle: the Jasons (Terry and Kidd), Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon, D-Will and Chandler Parsons. If you didn’t notice, the best lineup Dallas had by far this past season was the one with J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell, and Devin Harris. Meanwhile, the stagnant, ball-stopping of Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes rated as one of the worst starting lineups in the league.
I’ll admit my first thought after the lottery last week was that Dallas was out of the Luka sweepstakes for good, but as rumors continue to circulate that teams in the top three may prefer domestic frontcourt products, it appears the door has not been completely shut on #Doncic2Dallas. There are still two problems, though.
One is that the team immediately in front of Dallas—the Memphis Grizzlies—seem like an ideal landing spot, given their roster is built to win sooner rather than later and they need a secondary playmaker in the wake of Chandler Parsons’ injury-induced regression. Even in the unlikely event Doncic fell past pick No. 3, it’s hard to imagine Memphis not taking him at No. 4 when it was suggested they wanted him first overall.
The second problem is that Dallas, after all those years of avoiding the draft and swinging for the fences in free agency, have next to nothing to offer in terms of trade-up ammunition, aside from future picks. As much as I love Doncic (and I really do), it’s hard to stomach giving up next year’s selection. The Mavs need talent, and despite the posturing of Mark Cuban, it doesn’t seem likely this team will make the playoffs next season, so that pick should be in the lottery (if not the top 10) again.
I imagine the Dallas front office doesn’t agree, but I would absolutely consider trading Harrison Barnes, if it meant I could keep (or get a better protection on) next year’s pick. Barnes seems like a great person and he’s played better than I expected in Dallas, but looking at it objectively, he doesn’t really fit what Rick Carlisle and the Mavs like to do on the court in terms of moving the ball and spacing the floor. Replacing him with Doncic would roughly be equivalent to acquiring Doncic twice.
Before we get too high in the clouds on this one, it’s probably worth noting that there’s still a decent chance Phoenix takes Doncic No. 1, as the Suns just hired Doncic’s former coach. With Eric Bledsoe traded and Elfrid Payton about to hit restricted free agency, they could slide Doncic right into that point guard spot and go. Buckle up for a wild month.
Barea has thrived under Carlisle, as a pick-and-roll savant who can shoot enough to play off-ball and hustles his butt off at both ends. Now imagine J.J. was 6’8 instead of 5’9. Interested now?