In two weeks Luka Doncic steps into the lion’s den. 16,000 people in the Sinan Erdem Dome, almost all of them Fenerbahce fans, loud and visceral for the full 40 minutes. They want to break him. They want to break his team. Doncic and Real Madrid are what stand between the hosts and their shot at claiming Europe’s ultimate prize. The kid is ready for the spotlight. Emmet Ryan on the hottest prospect to hit Europe in living memory and how Istanbul is one step on an extraordinary journey
Lille is a fun town but during EuroBasket 2015, getting a drink required some work. Hacks finishing up late at the arena had to peg it for a train to get back into the city proper before the bars closed. A spot beside the Rihour metro stop quickly became the local once the night’s action was concluded. It wasn’t just journos descending there, agents, scouts, and anyone else working in basketball in need of a drink would pop in too. Work was over but the discussion, naturally, turned to hoops. Charlie was with the Knicks at the time working on social media before moving to the Sixers and was in town to get better acquainted with the young European talent on show. His then employer had just drafted Kristaps Porzingis, who wasn’t there, but Willy Hernangomez was around despite not seeing much time while Mario Hezonja’s Croatia crashed out early. Dario Saric was on his radar but as the drinks kept coming, and oh they kept coming, he asked me who else he needed to become acquainted with. Drunk me is prone to hyperbole. “You’ve gotta check out this kid Luka Doncic, he’s gonna be huge…the best prospect here since Tony Parker.” Way to overhype a 16 year old kid who I’d only seen twice, hungover both times.
Doncic was named MVP when Real Madrid won the Adidas Next Generation Tournament on their own floor a few hours before the grown-ups took the Euroleague crown. Rob Scott of Euroleague Adventures got his first look at Doncic the same week and came away quite impressed.
“[I thought] the same thing I thought when I saw Saric at the NIJT 2012, that youth basketball was already way beneath him. He played point guard, handled through pressure, zipped passes over opponents’ heads, made pull up threes, it was very easy for him. He was only 16 then, playing against kids two years older, but he was more physically developed than anyone,” said Scott.
Doncic has accelerated fast, really fast. He’d link up with the senior squad for the ACB (Spanish league) playoffs and start to get real minutes last season before his breakout season this year. Doncic is runaway favourite to take the Euroleague Rising Star Award (the equivalent of Rookie of the Year). He was always likely to make a quick impact but being this good this fast? Nobody anticipated that.
“In hindsight it almost counted against him at the time that he was so much better than u18 players. I didn’t see him doing this against the elite of European hoops so quickly, especially not as a playmaker. Looking back I can’t put my finger on exactly why, other than it just doesn’t happen very often,” said Scott.
There are still glimpses of his youth in Doncic’s game but you’ve got to look for them.
“His decision-making with the ball occasionally reminds us he’s only just turned 18. But that’s entirely normal, look at how his teammate Sergio Llull was once regarded as an unstable turnover machine, only to develop into a floor general. Other than that, only things you can’t really teach, like lateral quickness and athleticism. But how many kids who have that, have failed as players because they didn’t have half of the ability that he has?” said Scott.
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“He isn’t rattled by anything, but that’s because he can already do everything to a very high level. He wouldn’t be this chill if he didn’t have so much game. He has the point guard gene for split second timing, he can shoot off the dribble, he can rebound over big guys, he’s unselfish but also knows when to take over, he doesn’t shrink from the moment, he has a flair for the spectacular but never takes the offense out of its rhythm…I really hope we get him to ourselves for a couple more years, like Dario, and I hope whichever NBA team drafts him realises he’s a point guard in a 6’10” body.’
The height question is going to come up a lot when Doncic eventually looks to be drafted. He’s listed at 6’7″ but, like a couple of recent other Euros to jump across the Atlantic, appears to still be growing.
The composure Scott talks about has been visible for a while. Last season while Real were going through an ugly spell against CSKA Moscow, their normally relaxed coach Pablo Laso let fly. Doncic got the message fast and went to work.
Donic follows an impressive line of Slovenian players. Goran Dragic is easily the best known but the Balkan nation, which has a population of just 2 million, has long proven to be a good pipleine for talent. Interest in Doncic is huge in Slovenia but having moved to Spain in his early teens, access isn’t easy for the media there. A huge step for the national team came when Doncic confirmed he would represent his home nation internationally rather than consider naturalising as a Spaniard, like current Chicago Bulls player Nikola Mirotic did before him. That clarification certainly didn’t hurt Doncic’s popularity back home.
“Only the biggest Slovenian media could talk with him in the days before he turned 18, so yes, it is a challenge. I only spoke with him at that time. He went to Madrid when he was 13. In Spain they kind of ‘locked’ him from the media, so we can’t just call him like we do with other Slovenian basketball players that are playing abroad. He has become very popular in Slovenia,” said Tilen Jamnik, a sports journalist with RTV Slovenija.
For Jamnik, the Real Madrid youngster has the potential to surpass all of the Slovenian players who have previously made the jump to the NBA.
“Goran Dragic is having the best NBA career [of a Slovenian], although [Radoslav] Nesterovic (1), [Beno] Udrih (2), and [Sasah] Vujacic (2) all have NBA rings. I think Luka is unique. It is hard to compare his style to other Slovenian players. Because we were once part of Yugoslavia, players from other ex-Yugoslav republics are also very popular in Slovenia. So a lot of times we can hear some comparison with other players, like even [Drazen] Petrovic or [Dejan] Bodiroga. I would say he has some similarities with Bodiroga and maybe with [Toni] Kukoc. But if we talk about Slovenian players, it is hard. He can play as point guard, but he is very tall and we never had such a tall PG (besides Jure Zdovc, but his style was different). Maybe Luka is like point forward… And of course, we all expect that he will do the best of all of them in the NBA, even better than Dragic,” said Jamnik.
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Doncic’s father played a bit of ball himself, winning a couple of championships with Olimpija Ljubjana and playing for the national team at EuroBasket 2005. One of the top prospects in June’s upcoming draft has a father who likes to talk about his own experience as a baller but Jamnik said there’s no fear of the elder Doncic acting like LaVar Ball.
“No, Sasa is really calm about it. He is not making any hype. He is not exposing himself in media about Luka. He always says that Luka is really talented, but he was also very lucky that Real gave him chance of playing in such a high level. Some kids in Slovenia don’t have that opportunity, because we have talented guys, but working conditions are not as good as they were in the past. Sasa is now coach at Ilirija Ljubljana (the club where Dragic brothers started their careers) and he led the team into our first league. They started in third league and without any defeats they came into first league,” he said.
Jamnik hopes that Doncic follows in Kristaps Porzingis’ path and makes himself available for the upcoming EuroBasket, where Slovenia will play group games in Helsinki against hosts Finland, France, Greece, Iceland, and Poland.
“Of course, we are all counting on him. Especially now that we don’t have as many quality players as a few years ago. There were always some players that didn’t play for the national team, like Sasha Vujacic or Beno Udrih. But now we can’t play without our best players. We need Goran Dragic and we also need Luka Doncic if we want to do something at EuroBasket,” said Jamnik.
“He is amazing. I am a big fan of his game. In Slovenia we all hope that after we will talk about him as one of our greatest, like [Ivo] Daneu, Zdovc, Dragic. He surprises me every time I watch him. He is so talented, so skilled and so mature. When you are watching him, you can’t believe that he is still a teenager. I can’t remember last time one played at this level at such a young age. He is good shooter, his court vision is incredible, great pick’n’roll player and he is not forcing his game. And he has this magic touch like some other players from the former Yugolavia, as we seen it against Baskonia with that special move.”
— Ramiro Pérez Robles (@13RPR) April 9, 2017
To understand the leap Doncic has made this season, it requires taking in the different ways he impacts games depending on the situation. In Round 13 he won Euroleague as Real Madrid blew out Brose Bamberg 95-72. Doncic opened the game pretty quietly, he made a nice move in traffic and looked calm but didn’t feel the need to force himself on the game. Then he rocked back in for the second quarter and immediately made a three. Laso moved him to the point at this stage, putting him with Jaycee Carroll, Rudy Fernandez, Othello Hunter, and Felipe Reyes in a line-up that could run but one where he was the clear playmaker. He was looking fine at the 1 but was more ready as a wing. When Rudy came out for Sergio Llull, Doncic moved to the 2.
The third quarter was where he really started to take control, stealing a wild pass from Nikos Zisis before burning Darius Miller. He fed Llull for a possible open three but the Spaniard didn’t like it but waited for Maodo Lo to lock on to him. This gave Doncic the chance to make one slight adjustment in positioning, Llull fed him and Nik Melli could only watch as he laid it up casually.
This phase of the game also showcased the strength Doncic has at such a young age as he brutalised Daniel Theis on a drive to the hole. Doncic was showing that he knew when to dial it up and when to take a step off. He was showing authority and confidence on the floor. When Real slacked off in the final quarter, Doncic came back in and put the foot down. Under pressure from Lo he fed a bullet pass to Andres Nocioni for a score before the Argentinian returned the favour by feeding Doncic for a three. The young Slovenian finished the night with 16 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 2 turnovers in 19 minutes.
The talent and experience on the Real Madrid roster is undeniable. After a let-down in Euroleague last year following their 2015 triumph, Los Blancos roared back with a regular season best record of 23-7. There are seven players on the Madrid roster that have seen time in the NBA while Llull could move in a heartbeat but opts to stay with Real. Doncic has earned not just the respect of this stellar line-up but its trust and expectation. These veterans know Doncic can already deliver at such a young age and are more than happy to defer when it’s time for him to take command.
Against Maccabi Tel Aviv in Round 17, that’s just what he did. The Israeli club had a vile season all round, going through three coaches in the process, but gave Real a serious fright when they came to Madrid. Doncic had another quiet opening spell, albeit with a three this time, before returning later in the first quarter with his side down by 6. Once again, he wanted to take charge and made a simple quick assist to Fernandez. In the middle of the second quarter he showed patience before attacking with a curling run before driving through. Out on the right sideline he looked boxed in and just decided to push it. Doncic turned on the jets and dribbled up the gut for a dunk that left Sonny Weems trailing.
Maccabi kept punishing Real when Doncic sat and he came in during the third quarter right after Maccabi had ripped off a 20-10 run to lead by 8. Once again, he moved fast with a quick steal followed by a dime to Llull for a three before making another assist through traffic to Gustavo Ayon. The Mexican has proven a reliable outlet for Doncic with the two showing good chemistry throughout most of the season. In the fourth Maccabi put Sylven Landesberg on him in what was, on paper, a physically even match-up but Doncic just showed no respect to Landesberg’s size and bullied him. Another quick feed put Hunter in for a score before a quick transition play saw Doncic make a rebound, feed Llull, who set up Rudy for a three. Doncic sat before coming back in to play the closer. Another rebound and push up the court to Ayon sealed the deal. Real won 80-75 and Doncic took his second round MVP award with 10 points, 11 rebounds, 8 assists*, and 1 steal.
*Triple doubles are rare in Euroleague to the point of being all but non-existent. Since 1991 there have been only 6 in total with the last coming from Croatian big man Nikola Vujcic for Maccabi over Olimpija Ljubjiana in 2007. Contrast that with the recently concluded regular season in the NBA which had 117. The anecdotal observation that the NBA tends to be more generous in grading assists not only doesn’t have any way to be backed up statistically, it also just wouldn’t be enough to explain the remarkable gap.
To get a better understanding I reached out Simon Jatsch, who is the nerd’s nerd when it comes to European basketball. He sees a few factors influencing the gulf. First there’s the game length and pace. Jatsch pointed out that the average Euroleague game has 71-73 possessions per game per team, whereas in the NBA it’s around 96 possessions. There’s also the lack of balance in Europe, with no salary cap the best players play together on the best teams, where minutes are limited. There’s also the matter that Euro teams generally score the ball more efficiently than NBA or D-League teams but also turn the ball over more. This, Jatsch said, all amounts to less available rebounds and less assist chances.
“How many rebound chances does Luka Doncic have per game? They average 36 rebounds per game, he plays half the minutes… he has to dominate their rebounding in order to reach 10,” he said.
The playoffs against Darussafaka Dogus, coached by David Blatt, started out pretty rough for Doncic and Real. Brad Wanamaker finally made him look like the 18 year old he is by muscling him out of it for much of the first two games. After losing Game 2, a shattered Doncic was consoled on the bench by Laso. In his young career, it was the biggest mental test he’d endured to date. In Game 3 he came back out and gave us the playoff performance we were waiting for as he led Madrid to an important road win. He was put at the point and, this time, he took charge from the off. A third round MVP of the season honour came with his 13 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal.
In Game 4, we saw a different kind of influence from him. Doncic was hugely influential throughout, picking up a second consecutive MVP honour for the round, but didn’t need to force himself on the game at any stage. In the early going he was happy to hustle on defence as the offence worked itself out until he saw his moment. Then he called for it it and drove right at future Boston Celtic Ante Zizic to draw a foul. In the second quarter he came in with Real down narrowly and racked up 3 assists and 2 boards to spark a 10-0 Madrid run. It was a lead they never gave up. A sloppy turnover to Wanamaker in the third saw Doncic respond right away, you might be sensing a pattern here, by nailing a contested three. For the most part it was simply a case of playing smart and getting to the line. The 11 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists came as quietly as they could. In the post-game he kept it brief and focused. “We didn’t do nothing yet.” His goal is the trip back to Istanbul.
To get an idea of what Doncic has done to date and how it will translate when he presumably enters the NBA in the 2018 draft (although Madrid will try to keep him one more year) I spoke with Austin Green of Los Crossovers. Green has watched a lot of Doncic, through youth ball, Euroleague, and ACB play.
“He’s a 6’8 point guard with incredible vision, passing ability, patience, poise and scoring ability. He’s not Ricky Rubio — he has the same elite passing skills, but he’s several inches taller and a much better shooter. This is one of the reasons why I think he’ll be an All Star in his prime. He can knock down threes off the dribble or in catch-and-shoot situations, he is already posting up smaller (but much older) men, and he has an impressive array of pump fakes, floaters, scoop shots, etc. On the negative side, he’s not as good of a defender as Rubio and he’ll struggle some against NBA athletes,” said Green.
“I’ve been most impressed with his ability to take and make clutch shots without fear. He has almost never looked like a teenager amongst pros. He belongs, and that’s been clear for a while now. When I first saw him, he was 16-years-old and he dropped a triple-double in the Spanish U18 final. A week or two later, he swished a corner three on his first touch as a pro, playing with Real Madrid’s senior team against Unicaja. Now he’s hitting clutch threes, taking over in big moments and he has more weekly MVP awards this season than any EuroLeague player except reigning league MVP Nando de Colo. I thought Doncic would be good this year, but I didn’t expect him to become this good this quickly. He’s basically putting up 8-4-4 on good shooting numbers and playing solid defense. It’s insane.”
The scary part is that for all he has done to date, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
“He isn’t particularly quick laterally and he’ll need to improve his explosiveness and strength. He’s not a bad athlete by any means, but he’ll definitely have to work hard on his physical tools to maximise his potential. Also, a lot of his turnovers come off entry passes from the top of the key between the three-point line and half court. Sometimes he picks his dribble up too early or throws a lazy pass to initiate the offence, which gives the defence a chance to intercept it,” said Green.
“In terms of fit, his versatility is going to be a big plus. He can be the primary creator initiating the offence, or he can play off the ball and attack moving defences as a secondary creator. He’s an elite pick-and-roll ball-handler, so I expect teams to utilise that as much as possible. He’s also great at attacking in transition, so a fast-paced team with athletic finishers and good three-point shooters would be ideal for him. I think he’ll mostly defend 2s, 3s and small-ball 4s. He can probably guard slower point guards, but he won’t be able to stay in front of the best,”
“Overall, I absolutely love Doncic. I don’t know if he’ll be the top pick, but whatever team drafts him will have an elite talent. It can’t be overstated how impressive his production at this stage is. Saric, Rubio, Hezonja, Mirotic — none of those guys were as good and well-rounded in their final EuroLeague season as Doncic is now. He has also battled back from adversity in a very impressive way,”
“In early December, he had the worst game of his career. Three days later he became the first ACB player to have 23 points and 11 assists in a game since 2006. A few days later, he hit two clutch threes in a EuroLeague game to seal a win for Real. Similarly, he really struggled in Games 1 and 2 vs Dacka. He couldn’t score and he was getting physically beat up by guys like Brad Wanamaker. He was so frustrated that he cried on the bench, the first sign he has showed of being a boy amongst men. But, like in December, he recovered incredibly well when the series shifted to Istanbul. He was the game MVP for both Games 3 and 4, using his versatility and competitiveness to help Real Madrid win consecutive road games and eliminate Dacka. To me, that is the essence of Doncic.”
Those Dacka displays really made an impression across observers. In the latest edition of the Sweet 16 podcast reacting to this game, Aris Barkas went deep on what Doncic has done this year. As Barkas said on the show, Real can’t go to the next level this season without big contributions from Doncic.
For all the veterans and stars around him, Real know that a lot of their hopes when they go to Istanbul rest on his young shoulders. Nobody was ready for him to earn a role this big this fast. Fener will bring everything to try and bully the youngster off the court, both with their deep and talented roster and their vocal support. Luka Doncic is ready for this moment.