Ahead of the 2018 Euroleague Final Four, Emmet Ryan spoke with three American observers to get their views on Real Madrid star and top NBA draft prospect Luka Doncic
On this side of the pond, it’s easy to see what we like about Luka Doncic. It’s also easy to see where he needs to develop. Most of all, it’s easy to have conversations with others who have seen a lot of him.
Even in the heavily connected world we live in today, there are still challenges for American observers trying to work out how he will fit in the NBA. The time zone difference alone really can’t be ignored, it’s going to limit the amount he gets viewed. Likewise, there are only so many hours in the day even for draft hounds. Following players developing in the United States is just plain easier.
With that in mind and because a heap of BiE’s visitors being from the US, I reached out to three people in the US who have been following Doncic in varying ways to get their views on what they make of the young Slovenian.
Before we get into what they said, a few regulars will wonder why Austin Green of Los Crossovers isn’t in this piece. While Austin is from Montana, he’s about as Euro in his focus as any of us and frankly knows more about Doncic than most. I was looking more for people who haven’t been following his development since 2015.
To start with, I asked Ricky O’Donnell of SB Nation for his views on Doncic. “The first time I really saw him play was in Eurobasket 2017. I was familiar with his name going into that event, but that felt like the first time American fans actually got a chance to see him on the same floor as NBA talent,” he told BallinEurope.
O’Donnell is the college hoops editor at SB Nation and that naturally gives him a better eye on what’s happening on his side of the Atlantic.
“I’m much more familiar with the American prospects because of the work I do covering college basketball recruiting for SB Nation. I always take a trip to watch the shoe companies leagues and another to see USA Basketball minicamp in Colorado,” he said.
“The first EYBL game I ever covered was Jayson Tatum vs. Michael Porter Jr. With the American prospects, I typically get to see them as high school players before they go off to college and eventually the NBA. International prospects are more difficult to track for me because they exist outside of that realm.”
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Despite the challenge in tracking international players, O’Donnell has got a decent look at what he likes and is worried about with Doncic.
“I love his game. I’ve had him as the No. 1 player in the draft since last June. I just think he makes winning plays. He’s so skilled offensively as a ball handler and passer, he’s a great rebounder, I think he’ll eventually be a high-level shooter, and he’s great at making plays off ball screens,” said O’Donnell.
“More than anything, I just think he has high basketball IQ and is the type of guy who is going to help you win games. I’d expect his overall impact on winning to transcend whatever his box score numbers are,”
“The lack of elite burst is a concern, for sure. I think the bigger one might be the consistency of his three-point shot. He’s not going to be a star in the NBA unless he’s a great three-point shooter. I think he has the potential to become that, but the percentages say he’s not close to it yet.”
Like many, O’Donnell will be tuning in to the Euroleague Final Four to see how Doncic performs.
“I just want to see where his game is at right now. Reports are that he hit something of a wall this season, but has been better since coming back from a brief rest. We haven’t gotten to see any of the top draft prospects play since March Madness ended, so this will be a great opportunity to evaluate him in a big game situation.”
James Holas comes at Doncic from a different perspective. His bread and butter day to day is covering the NBA for BBall Breakdown and on the Dunk Tales podcast. Doncic came on his radar due to his keeping up to date with draft coverage.
“I follow some NBA draft heavy guys like Cole Zwicker and Sam Vecenie on social media. I don’t follow college ball nor Euro Ball, but I kept seeing the name Luka Doncic and everyone was fawning over him. A quick YouTube search brought me footage of a skilled swingman with good size. So Twitter is what brought him to my attention,” said Holas.
While a DeAndre Ayton or Marvin Bagley III was easy to check in on, keeping up with Doncic is more of a challenge for Holas.
“The biggest difference to me, is how much video is available on the player. If the prospect is going through college, there’s ample footage of him from back in high school, and then from all of the different US based camps, and copious amount of footage from his college games,” he said.
“For European prospects, it’s usually hard to find anything but snippets and highlights. Also, I usually have a better feel for the competition that the college kid is playing against, having seen the other high-level players against each other. Not saying that the competition overseas is ‘worse’, but there is a different level of athleticism and speed between the games here and the European leagues.”
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It’s keeping an eye on the differences that makes judging a talent from overseas a challenge for NBA observers. Holas sees upsides and downsides to Doncic ahead of the draft.
“I’m impressed by Doncic’s all around skill level. At 6’6″*, he has really good size, he can score off the bounce, he’s playmaking for others, superb vision, he has the step backs, all of that, and he’s just freakin’ 19. I respect that he’s playing in pressure situations in a professional league and he’s not even 20,” he said.
*Before anyone argues with James over the height of Doncic, I’ve seen reported heights vary so much that he could have said anything between 6’1” and 6’10” and I wouldn’t hold it against him.
“My concerns… He doesn’t seem to have very high level burst athletically. Sure, I’ve seen a couple of nice drives, nice dunks, but as talented as his league is, the athleticism is next level in the NBA,”
“It makes me think about how Rudy Fernandez came over to the NBA after scoring 19 points per game in the Liga ACB league. We heard so much gushing about him, then he came over to Portland and was a role player who never averaged more than 10 points per game in Portland and Denver,”
“I also think about Bogdan Bogdanovic; he racked up awards and accolades in Europe, including the 2017 Euro player of the year. Last year, his first in the NBA, Bogdanovic looked promising on a bad Sacramento team, dude is obviously a hard nosed real deal talent. But you would hardly call him an ‘impact player’,”
“Now I’m aware that Luka is much younger than Rudy or Bogdan were when they came over; this isn’t about age. This is about how the game is played, the speed, it’s just such a different mentality overseas versus here in America. I’m just curious about how many of the things that he does in Europe will translate to the NBA game. I think there’s very little chance that he’s a bust, I just don’t know how much of a star he’ll translate to, and if there’s talk of him going number 1 in the draft, he better be a star.”
Despite his concerns, Holas doesn’t see this coming weekend as crucial to Doncic’s draft stock.
“I’m very interested to see how he develops. But I think he’s already shown enough, it’s obvious he’s an NBA talent. I will be watching, again, I know I sound like a broken record… I’m looking for how he beats guys off of the dribble, how he finishes over and around length, that sort of thing. I just don’t have a great feel for exactly what he’s going to be as an NBA pro,” he said.
“He looks like a cross between Jason ‘White Chocolate’ Williams and Danilo Gallinari in the face. No seriously, I’m just glad that I’m not the GM who has to roll the dice on him eventually. With Kristaps Porzingis, at least you had the gigantic size as a ‘fall back’.”
The last voice is a touch different to O’Donnell and Holas. Charlie Widdoes is director of digital content for the Philadelphia 76ers. Aside from having gotten to know a few good Euros to come through the NBA between his current role and his previous time at the New York Knicks, a big reason I wanted Charlie’s thoughts was because I drunkenly told him in Lille in 2015 that he needed to find out about the kid.
Widdoes has an interest in Doncic, one he’s built up over the near three years since, but even he finds it challenging to get a good look at him.
“Obviously there’s less visibility for those of us watching in America–because there are fewer games, the competition level varies so greatly, and playing time/role can be so inconsistent with what would be projected as NBA players,” he said.
“But I’ve found that there is smarter/more sophisticated coverage of European prospects than college
players; those who cover Euro ball closely but also pay attention to the NBA have much more valuable perspective than most American pundits, so I enjoy that aspect of it.”
The X factor element of Doncic’s appeal isn’t lost on Widdoes who sees a lot to like in the Slovenian.
“I just love his game. He has ‘it,’ and at his size, with his shooting ability, competitiveness and feel, I’m not sure how he doesn’t end up an All-Star. My only concern is that he winds up in the wrong place,
with the wrong coaching staff or culture, and we don’t get to see him reach his ceiling,” he said.
“His special talent deserves a bright coaching mind. I think this is particularly true on the defensive end, where scheme and teammates can have a big impact on the individual parts,”
“Watching Kristaps Porzingis and now Embiid up close, it’s very clear who has the mental approach to succeed in the NBA, along with a drive to be great. There’s a mix of fire and uncanny poise. Immediate respect from teammates, most of whom are many years older. By all indications, he has those things. Can’t wait to see where he winds up.”
Widdoes was hoping to make it to Belgrade to watch Doncic in person but, alas, it wasn’t to be this season.
“I was hoping to make the trip to Belgrade, but the 76ers’ playoff run and NBA Combine got in the way. I will do my best to watch, but don’t think there’s much left to see in terms of evaluating Doncic. We’ve
already seen him perform at the highest levels against top competition in meaningful games. Like I do each game with Joel Embiid, I’d just be watching to see what he does next.”
Sincere thanks to Ricky, James, and Charlie for their help with this.
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