Predicting NBA’s Top 10 International Players in 2019-20: Luka Doncic (6)

There have only been five rookies in NBA history to average 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game: Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tyreke Evans and Luka Doncic. 

Leading up to the 2018 NBA Draft, there was a lot of debate over just how good the Slovenian teenager was. Unlike other big-name players in that class, he not only wasn’t American, but he didn’t play a single moment of basketball in the United States prior to being selected. 

Technology and travel advancements have made it possible for the league to discover talent anywhere on the globe, yet there’s still a stigma attached to foreign players that often lead to them being devalued in comparison to the stars of the NCAA Tournament.

Doncic had just finished a season with Real Madrid where, at 18 years old, he won the Liga ACB championship, Liga ACB MVP, ACB Best Young Player, EuroLeague championship, EuroLeague MVP, EuroLeague Final Four MVP, EuroLeague Rising Star, and was named to the All-Liga ACB and All-EuroLeague First Teams.

He was the most-decorated prospect in the draft, and yet he wasn’t one of the top two picks.

But it wasn’t as if he simply had a good year that was being looked at as an “Euro outlier”. Rather, he joined the Spanish club’s youth academy at 13 and by 2015 found himself on NBA radars. Similarly, he had amassed quite the cabinet of awards as he led his team to the EB Next Generation Tournament championship and took home MVP honors.

The following year he would join the senior team at Madrid. At 16 years old, he would become the youngest player on the professional team in the club’s history. Since then, he’s fit right in playing alongside grown men despite not being old enough to drink an alcoholic beverage.

As his basketball future hung in the balance, the Dallas Mavericks traded up to the third overall pick—sacrificing the rights to Trae Young and a future first-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks that would become Cam Reddish—and welcomed him with open arms.

This team was finishing up on 20 years with the best international player in NBA history, Dirk Nowitzki, and were one of the first NBA franchises to invest heavily in overseas scouting. In Doncic they saw an opportunity to once again acquire a franchise cornerstone.

Jan 25, 2019; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Doncic (77) and forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) react during the second quarter against the Detroit Pistons at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

As fate would have it, the baton was able to literally be passed between the two players. The new kid’s first season wound up being the future first-ballot Hall of Fame choice’s last. Even though they crossed paths when the German was well past his prime, two decades worth of NBA knowledge at the highest level did not go to waste.

The teenager showed from the beginning of the year that he had that special “it” factor—even gaining some All-Star momentum—that every team is looking for when they draft a player in the lottery.

At 6’7” and 217 pounds, Doncic has the build of a wing and the strength to bang around on the interior with bigger players. Yet, that all comes packaged with superior passing skills and a killer scoring instinct from all three levels. These traits were honed during his three seasons in Europe where the game is played much more physically than we see in the NBA—especially since the emphasis on freedom of movement was put into place.

It was routine for him to spend multiple possessions guarding players who were bigger than him, taller or both.

That experience—particularly his time in the EuroLeague, which is often referred to as the best league outside of the U.S.—shaped Doncic into a more developed player despite being one of the youngest players in a league that usually equalizes minutes and makes it tough for youngsters to crack its veteran-preferred rotations.

His biggest advantage is that he can operate as a facilitator and playmaker with the ball in his hands. An injury to Sergio Llull paved the way for him to give the world a first look at how he could operate as the primary ball-handler. As noted above, that season finished in short with Real Madrid winning everything. 

It would stand to reason that when Dallas took Doncic, they had plans to use him in a similar role. With Devin Harris, J.J. Barea and Jalen Brunson as the only options at the 1, it was no surprise that the ball found its way to the teenager early and often.

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle is notorious for not trusting rookies and being hardest on whoever is the main initiator of his offense. Their lottery pick checked both boxes but it would seem a huge credit to him that he was handed over control to the franchise so quickly.

Doncic would average 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and six assists per game and start all 72 games that he appeared in.

Offenses have only gotten more intricate over time, yet as a rookie, the teen did not look like he was in over his head in the slightest. He ran the system crisply and on most nights was the best player in uniform for the Mavericks. Shortly into his first NBA season, he became the main player that opposing teams made the top priority on their scouting reports.

The belief is that the trial by fire that he experienced last year will only make him even better going forward. Also, having a sidekick in Kristaps Porzinigs back healthy should go a long way towards getting Dallas back into the conversation of playoff contenders and eventually NBA title hopefuls.

There are still ways that Doncic can improve his game, beginning with shot selection. As a rookie, he posted an effective field goal percentage (eFG) of 49.7. The other two players to log that same percentage were De’Aaron Fox and Justise Winslow. Both are also solid young players who will improve there, but if Doncic wants to be elite, that needs to be much higher. For comparison, Kawhi Leonard had an eFG of 54.6 percent.

The teenager had the right shot distribution (9.3 two-pointers and 7.1 three-pointers per game), but he’ll need to be much more efficient going forward. He took the second-most step-back three-pointers in the NBA last year. If Doncic makes them at a rate similar to James Harden, then that becomes a more defensible choice, even if they were a fairly effective option. Again, some of that comes from the fact Dallas simply didn’t have many other shot makers last season, so Porzingis’ arrival should help.

Nonetheless, Doncic will benefit from the experience of knowing when to force the issue and when to simply let the offense run its course so that the ball winds up back in his hands for easier looks.

Jan 11, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) passes around Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) during the first quarter at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, there’s durability to consider.

The summer before his rookie season, the Mavericks opted to have Doncic sit out of the Las Vegas Summer League in order to give his body a much-needed rest. Not only did he lead Real Madrid to two championships in 2018, but before that, he had teamed up with Goran Dragic to help Slovenia capture the 2017 EuroBasket championships—which was the first time the nation has ever medaled in a basketball competition. 

The time away gave him a chance to reset his body and play in the majority of the 2018-19 season, but it also meant that he would spend the bulk of the year playing himself into shape. He missed 10 games nonetheless and seemed to understandably wear down near the season’s end.

This offseason he had no such restrictions. Dallas didn’t make the playoffs, and he didn’t play for his native country in any FIBA tournaments. Instead, he has been able to workout with the main focus of being ready for his second NBA season.

If his body responds, we could see an even better version immediately. A better Doncic and an improved roster around him could make the Mavericks a much bigger threat to potentially steal a playoff spot than many are giving them credit for.

Is it premature to suggest Doncic could wind up being the best player from this entire list? Absolutely.

Then again, it’s not inappropriate to wonder, especially considering the trajectory this kid is already on.

Read Part 7 here: