By Justin Hodges
The NBA continues to evolve with each passing year, expanding its talent base to now include 108 foreign players representing 42 countries, according to nba.com
Next season, the league figures to welcome one of the highest profile foreign players in Slovenian superstar, Luka Dončić. The 18-year-old forward prodigy has made waves across the Euroleague playing for Real Madrid, showcasing the potential to be the first pick in one of the most front-loaded drafts in recent memory.
The last time a top overall pick didn’t play college basketball was Andrea Bargnani in 2006. Even those born outside of the United States, such as Ben Simmons and Karl Anthony-Towns, showed out in the NCAA in front of coaches, scouts, and national audiences.
Though our perception of international prospects continues to evolve, the track record still varies wildly. For every Kristaps Porzingis—a high draft pick who lives up to his star billing—there’s a Mario Hezonja (picked immediately after) who completely flops. For every draft gem like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Nikola Jokic who exceeds their draft slot, there’s a Dante Exum or Dragan Bender who struggles to live up to expectations.
The idea of prospects playing in America being more highly regarded in direct correlation to them being easily accessible and viewable to fans and those in the NBA community is absolutely true. Playing on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean has made Dončić a mystery to the everyday viewer, and more difficult for NBA personnel to keep a keen eye on.
Even so, Dončić’s has the game of a franchise-defining player.
His physique is the primary place to begin. At approximately 6’7” and 225 lbs., Dončić’s body is already filled out with a solid frame. While he’s not an explosive athlete, there are physical traits that really show out on tape. He has excellent core strength, meaning he’s able to exert more power from his chest and abdomen area.
This benefits Dončić in several areas. In face-up situations he is able to force contact when a defender plays up on him and he is able to body through and essentially bounce off defenders. Doing this creates instant separation on drives which allows his layup attempts to become less contested with a defender not right on him.
3rd, I think Doncic's most underrated skill is his ability to use his body to create space/keep defenders off balance/draw fouls. He leads EuroLeague in total fouls drawn (70) and fouls drawn per game (6.36). Keeps defenders on his back in PNR, uses shoulder on drives pic.twitter.com/YmbaNi8HMI
— Austin Green (@LosCrossovers) December 10, 2017
The core strength also allows Dončić to be effective in back-to-the-basket situations. The ability to back down defenders and force them backwards towards the rim is a crucial asset not just as a scorer, but as a playmaker as well.
The most noticeable aspect of his physical capabilities however is his body control and the fluidity in how he moves. This contributes to Dončić’s exceptional ball handling ability. It may appear awkward on film, but his handles are extremely effective.
— Kurt niklasson (@kurreniklasson) February 4, 2017
The purpose of great ball handling isn’t to be flashy, but to break down your defender one-on-one. Dončić does this better than anyone else in the class. In half-court isolations he loves to keep it simple. A lot of times Dončić will start with a between-the-legs dribble, followed by a crossover and a deceptive hesitation. This will often do the trick as he is able to freeze the defender; after which, he absolutely loves his accurate step-back three-pointer.
Check how Luka Doncic uses the Hop on his step back. Quick, explosive, rhythm, perfect! pic.twitter.com/evLU4smHxy
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) September 3, 2017
Past the physical attributes, the meat of Dončić’s tremendous potential comes from other areas. Notably, what he’s able to do with his mind and instincts.
Where Dončić serves his greatest roll is as a Pick-and-Roll ball handler. Per Synergy he spends 30 percent of his possessions in Euroleague play as a PnR handler where he scores most of his points—averaging 1.082 points per possession, which ranks in the 93rd percentile in Euroleague while having an adjusted FG% of 60.7 percent in this situation.
While those numbers show Dončić is an elite scorer in pick-and-roll, he is even better as a playmaker.
Check the no look Doncic pass out of the PnR. Kid has next level court awareness pic.twitter.com/TyU38hiXvR
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) July 29, 2017
He showcased this to an extreme in Eurobasket, which he and Goran Dragic won with Slovenia. A majority of Slovenia’s half-courts possessions with Dončić on the floor were executed with him setting the tone in pick-and-roll.
After a screen is set for him, Dončić is elite in reading how the defenders react. That on its own is so crucial in the NBA, forcing defenders to react to you and make split-second decisions based off what the defense has given you.
Here's Luka Doncic going to his left very comfortably,then a slick little pass to the roll man. Good vision, timing, accuracy. And he's 6'7" pic.twitter.com/FvuqundWLE
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) January 15, 2017
Dončić is proficient in hitting the roller, which is the easiest way to score points in the NBA. He is incredibly patient in these sets—timing his passes perfectly—and knows how to lead big men into scoring position with his passes. These are things NBA point guards take a long time to develop, and he’s an 18-year-old wing.
A classic Doncic's move: Feed Roll Man in the Pick-and-Roll with behind-the-back pass pic.twitter.com/w1oIaZlQ8E
— Gabriel Andrade (@GabrielAndPaula) August 1, 2017
When the roll man is covered, Dončić shows impeccable vision. When you force defenders to move, you are forcing them to switch and communicate. In essence, you’re putting them in situations where they can make a mistake. When defenses make mistakes, it often leads to perimeter shooter being wide open at the three-point line. No matter if it’s a cross court pass or a drop off in a crowded lane, Doncic continually can make the right reads in a split second, leading to scoring opportunities.
All of that is going to be the most impactful asset that will help Dončić succeed in the NBA. It is a trait that no other prospect this year has in their arsenal; primarily because no other prospect has the intellect that Dončić possesses.
Nice pass by Luka Doncic on this Carroll 3. Patient on the pick-and-roll, keeps Diez on his back, has the height/vision/accuracy to kick out pic.twitter.com/eomefflQlQ
— Austin Green (@LosCrossovers) June 3, 2017
While Dončić may not be the high-volume scorer that, say, a Trae Young is, he can still hold his own as a scorer.
Going back to Synergy stats, Dončić stands out in several areas. Dončić uses 13 perecent of his Euroleague possessions working in spot-up situations, where he puts up 1.156 points per possession on a 57 percent adjusted FG%. Working off screens and cuts, he puts up 1.5 points per possession, which ranks in the 90th percentile.
In all, Luka Dončić simply possesses more things that translate to NBA success than any other prospect this draft. Dončić may not play in front of NBA or college crowds every night, but his numbers and highlights demand attention.