Like every top prospect in this draft (and in most drafts?), Luka Doncic the prospect is not without flaws: he has a questionable handle for a lead ball handler and an annoying habit of picking his dribble up too early. He’s an average athlete and maybe over-reliant on stepbacks, and for all his advanced vision and screaming passes, he’s not above forcing the ball into spaces it can never reach. In other ways, he’s a complete outlier amongst his peer set: his pick-and-roll game is game is master class, his passing the best in the draft, his combination of size and skill an almost teenage facsimile of Magic and Bird which isn’t to say he’s Magic or Bird, just that for a kid his size to play with this type of skill is rare. Where the other kids in his draft class have played 30 to 40 games with other teenagers at the American collegiate level, Doncic has been battling with grown men, NBA-caliber men, in Spain’s ACB league. He is different, he is same.
Doncic is listed at 6’8”, 230-pounds which, purely in terms of height and weight, puts him in a class with Harrison Barnes, Joe Johnson, and Danny Granger: a trio of sturdy, shooting wings who, like Doncic, combine power with skill to offer NBA value. He is not the athlete of Barnes or Granger; flexible, wiry, strong. He’s closer to Johnson; powerful and dependent on skill. While his game doesn’t reference Johnson’s, his build and how he utilizes his strength does. Iso Joe has made a career out of being able to get to his spots and create looks for himself or his teammates. To be totally fair, Johnson’s handle and explosiveness off the dribble are much better than Luka’s. Both players use the dribble to set up defenders for space-creating stepbacks though Johnson’s is much more fluid than 19-year-old Doncic’s.
The bigger difference between Doncic and Johnson is the younger man’s ability to diagnose plays, see the court, and execute passes. It’s fun to reference Magic and Bird and lofty basketball IQ ideals, but even the European game has adopted the modern NBA’s spread schemes with players surrounding the perimeter and opening space for drivers like Doncic. In these schemes, he operates with the precision of LeBron or James Harden in that he can probe the defense with patience, draw in help defenders and, when all seems lost in the world and the dark clouds of help defenders descend on his little spaces, he can jump, see, twist, and whip violent passes to shooters around the arc. In that regard, he has the right set of skills for this modern NBA. And it’s not to suggest he’s a gimmick or an automaton, rather creativity, improvisation, and trust exist at the core of this type of play. Read, react. Read, react. Read, react.
For all the reasonable questions around Doncic’s athleticism, it’s his speed and pace that intrigue. Doncic goes hard. He sprints off screens, dribbles hard, pushes the ball up court with single minded, pedal to metal, headbanging intent: the goal is my destination; there is no alternative. (Blessings are curses, and nurses are nurses; ho hum.) Intensity is fun and magnetic, but knowing when to accelerate, when to brake, or when to just ease your foot back are more important. This is less a question of decision making and more a question of skill development. In my notes, I wrote, “could benefit from watching lots of CP3 – not the quickest guy; uses body, speed shifting.” (It’s always fun to reference yourself.) There are already hints of Paul in Doncic’s game. Against Kristaps Porzingis’s Latvian team at the 2017 Euro Basket tournament, Doncic was able to use his strength and mass both to get into the Zinger’s chest and neutralize his length and also hold him off to get clean looks at layups. Using strength to create space is a tactic both Johnson and Paul have excelled at and one that Doncic ideally continues to refine. Back to Paul; he’s a virtuoso and some think he’s the best point guard to ever play the game. It goes without saying that aspiring NBA point guards should study his game, but for Doncic in particular, with his strength, vision, and need to create space, CP should be a model to emulate.
I’m not convinced Doncic needs to be a point guard to reach his NBA ceiling. As I mention above, he has a terrible habit of picking his dribble up too early and he can be harassed by smaller or longer defenders with strong, active hands. It’s not to say he should disregard his handle as his game needs a strong handle to be fully realized. Rather, as with Nikola Jokic and Draymond Green, we’ve seen that elite passers can be utilized outside of traditional ball-dominant roles. I can envision him playing any position from one to four – and likely struggling defensively with any of them. He has plus defensive instincts with strong active hands, an ability to read the floor and anticipate the pass, but bends more at the waist than the knees and so is prone to being beat off the dribble. That’s hardly unique though and his offense is good enough that he can be a minus defender and still be a net positive. He’s a solid defensive rebounder when he commits to it, but is prone to ball watching and ignoring box outs.
I get the concerns: athleticism, ability to create space, handle, defense. But it’s hard to process those areas of opportunity without fully acknowledging just how advanced his game is. The questions, phrased in the lingo of the present, is about Doncic’s ceiling and floor: most agree he has a high floor based on that enormous skill set and basketball IQ. For the anxious and the detractors, his ceiling is in question due to the lack of athleticism and pudgier build. It’s a reasonable concern as he has a Paul Pierce-type build with a face that looks fuller than what we expect from our best athletes – which says more about appearances than outputs. Similarly to Trae Young, I’m opting for the eye test and the output for Doncic over the convention and appearance. First impressions are a motherfucker and appearances can skew entire perceptions. Doncic is 19, a teenager who doesn’t turn 20 until February of 2019. He plays basketball. He just led his Real Madrid team to their league title and the Euroleague title while winning MVPs in both. As an 18-becoming-19-year-old, he played in over 70 games this season. He’s nothing like his peers.