"Situational Analysis" is a series of articles that seeks to examine the circumstances that most often influence an NBA prospect’s success. Each player will be scored on a scale from 1-10 in four different categories: NBA-specific skill(s), fatal flaw(s), collegiate/overseas/pre-NBA environment, and ideal NBA ecosystem.
Luka Doncic is a 19-year-old point forward from Slovenia currently averaging 15.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists (21.8/7.5/6.7 per 36 minutes, via BasketballReference.com) for Real Madrid. He is expected to be selected no lower than fifth overall and as high as No. 1. NBADraft currently has him going No. 4.
Are you an NBA head coach? Doncic is ready to run your offense. Not in three years. Not as the captain of your second unit. Not for fits and starts after the All-Star break. Right now. Day one.
It almost seems like an insult to praise Doncic’s basketball IQ. It would be like saying a young Bobby Fischer had a high chess IQ. Doncic knows where the pieces on the board want to move before everyone else has had time to survey the scene.
The scary part? He just turned 19.
The terrifying part? He’s doing this for Real Madrid against grown men a half-step below NBA-level competition.
Most NBA front offices employ armies of analysts who attempt to project how a player’s collegiate or overseas production will translate to the NBA. Doncic has rendered these models essentially useless. His production coupled with his youth is essentially unprecedented. Even teen savants like Ricky Rubio weren’t trusted with the responsibilities and minutes Doncic has earned.
Even the best European draft prospects often struggle to earn minutes on top-level clubs. Doncic is the clear best player on an unstoppable Real Madrid squad, leading the club in points and assists in a hair under 25 minutes per contest. His teammates include recognizable names such as Anthony Randolph, Rudy Fernandez, Gustavo Ayon, Chasson Randle, Trey Thompkins and others. Drop this team into any NCAA Tournament and they’d lay waste to the field.
Doncic was also a key contributor to Slovenia’s surprising run to the FIBA EuroBasket gold medal last year alongside NBA All-Star Goran Dragic, who has had nothing but glowing things to say about Doncic’s NBA potential.
Offensively, Doncic can do a little bit of everything, but he is best suited as the lead ball handler orchestrating the offensive flow. At 6-8, he’s a matchup nightmare and he can see passing lanes that are off-limits for smaller guards. Unlike Ben Simmons, however, Doncic can keep teams honest with a reliable (if streaky) 3-point shot.
Defensively, Doncic won’t draw Kawhi Leonard comparisons, but he’s tough, smart, active and has a knack for deflections.
Should Doncic’s growth curve match his unprecedented production as a teenager, he would be a franchise-level talent. On a scale from 1 (that kid in "Thunderstruck" before he mystically acquired Kevin Durant’s talent) to 10 (Kevin Durant in everything other than "Thunderstruck"), Doncic’s NBA-ready playmaking skills are a 9.
Doncic isn’t the most explosive run-and-jump athlete, but that doesn’t concern me. I am worried, however, that the expectations surrounding Doncic are starting to get a little out of whack.
Look, I know what I just wrote about Doncic. I said he could run an NBA offense right now, and I stand by that. I’m not sure that team would necessarily win more than 38 games, though.
If you have been plugged into pre-draft conversation over the last few months, a few folks are getting a bit ahead of their skis when discussing Doncic. It’s starting to feel like when that music snob friend of yours tries to tell you that some unsigned Soundcloud rapper is going to be bigger and better than Kendrick Lamar.
I mean, can we all pump the brakes before we start calling Doncic the next Larry Bird?
It’s too much to expect Doncic to uproot his life, learn a new culture and juggle the on/off-court responsibilities of NBA stardom, while also anointing him as the second coming.
By all accounts, Doncic has his head screwed on straight. He has been in the spotlight overseas for years now, and he has met/exceeded every expectation. The bars he’s expected to clear now, however, might just be a little bit too high.
I want to see what position he’ll be asked to defend. I can see the best NBA minds disagreeing with where they’d slot Doncic on defense. He’ll likely struggle to keep quicker 2s and 3s in front of him, while stronger 3s and 4s will muscle him, at least through his rookie contract. Ideally, Doncic’s NBA weight and conditioning program will allow him to switch along the perimeter, allowing his Swiss-Army offensive game to exploit cross-matches in transition.
He isn’t a finished product, but Doncic’s floor is so high already that it seems unlikely that he’ll end up anything less than a productive starter. But if the expectations continue to spiral out of control, a team and its fans might not view that as enough of a success. On a scale from 1 (Felipe Lopez) to 10 (LeBron James), Doncic’s ability to avoid pre-draft overhype/overexposure is at an 8.
Doncic’s entire youth has been carefully cultivated to maximize his basketball ability. His father, Sasa, was a tremendous player in his own right and has spent the better part of the last decade as a high-level coach in the Slovenian League.
Doncic has rarely played against kids his own age. At every level, it was recommended that he jump a level or two. He signed his contract with Real Madrid at age 13 and eventually became the youngest player to debut with the squad in 2015, at age 16.
The list of awards and accolades Doncic has earned is, frankly, a bit absurd. Ever since Doncic first touched a basketball, he has received top-level coaching and encouragement. He has been a professional far longer than his draft contemporaries.
I can’t imagine a better pre-NBA career for any prospect.
On a scale from 1 (Emmanuel Mudiay’s experiences at SMU/China) to 10 (Gordon Hayward going from a lightly recruited 3-star guard to nearly hitting the greatest shot in college basketball history as a sophomore playing under Brad Stevens), Doncic’s pre-NBA setting is a 10.
Ideal NBA Ecosystem
Doncic needs to go to a team that trusts him. He needs a coach creative enough to maximize his unique playmaking skills, while giving him enough rope to learn through the mistakes he’s sure to make as a rookie.
It would be a tragedy if he went to a team that tried to stifle his creativity. A team with a ball-dominant point guard might try to play him as a spot-up shooter off the ball. That would be unwise.
In a perfect world, I’d love to see Doncic drafted by a functional NBA organization that would know how best to utilize his specific talents. But as long as the NBA continues to reward terrible teams with prime draft slots, it will be up to Doncic to flourish on his own.
Rick Carlisle would be a fascinating player/coach match with Doncic, as long as they can occasionally pry the ball away from Dennis Smith Jr. I could also see Doncic as a wonderful complement to the Conley/Gasol pairing (should it stay intact) in Memphis.
On a scale from 1 (Darko Milicic’s rookie season) to 10 (Donovan Mitchell landing in Utah and immediately becoming the face of the franchise), Doncic’s situational independence is a 7.5.