NBA Position: Wing
General Information: 19 years old, played for Real Madrid in the Euroleague and ACB. From Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Measurables: ~6’7”, ~230 lbs.
2016-17 Season Statistics (Stats across all Euroleague, ACB, and Spanish Cup games up to June 16, courtesy of RealGM.com): 14.2 PPG, 4.6 APG, 5.2 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 2.2 TOPG (71 games played, 25.1 minutes a contest) – 45.1% FG, 78.6% FT, 31.0% 3P
Summary: Luka Dončić has dominated the spotlight in Europe since he was 16 years old, and used his elite basketball IQ, shooting ability, and excellent passing instincts to become the most accomplished European draft prospect in history. His versatile skillset make him one of the safest and higher-ceiling players in the class, as he looks nowhere near done growing as a scorer. He has some defensive limitations, especially when teams attack him on switches, but he’s got the size to match up against most wings. He’s an ideal fit for the modern NBA offense, and there aren’t many 19-year-olds with his feel for the game and competitive fire.
Offensive Breakdown: Dončić’s greatest skill on the court is his incredible basketball IQ, instincts, and awareness, all of which are far beyond normal for a 19-year-old. His success in the pick-and-roll shows this best, as such plays were a massive part of Real Madrid’s battle plan with Dončić at the helm. As soon as the pick is set, Dončić does a great job of reading the play, uses his advanced handle to create openings, and can either get to the hoop or find an teammate, depending on what avenue opens up. Check out this sweet misdirection.
Dončić changes speed, stops on a dime, jukes, waits for his defender to get-off balance, ends his defender with a second juke, and dives for the basket... all while watching the paint to see when one of the help defenders will cover so he can dump-off. (Hat tip to Fireplug for helping me find this clip). It’s mechanical efficiency at a muscle-memory level beyond most youngsters. Dončić knew exactly how to get his defender out of the way, and where the open pass would be before the help defense even moved.
At 6’7” (or taller... check this picture of him with Jeff Taylor [6’7.25” at the 2012 NBA combine], or this shot with Vlade Divac [was 7’1” in his prime]), Dončić gets an excellent vantage of the whole court and can make the right reads out of the pick-and-roll and traps. He doesn’t have an explosive first step, but he’s a really shifty handler and covers ground fairly quickly. He depends more on his creativity and handle than elite physical ballhandlers, but his body coordination and fluidity are underrated physical tools for a kid who has been branded with the ‘unathletic’ label.
Dončić thrives in a fast-paced offense, and can get up the court in a hurry when he’s pushing or running with the breakaway. He’s going to be a shot-in-the-arm for any team looking to increase their pace due to his determination alone.
That said, finishing at the rim is a concern for Dončić going forward as he adjusts to the new physical realities of the NBA world. His size and ability to add strength will help him adjust somewhat, and he showed solid success in the EuroLeague as defenders underestimated his strength and power on his drives. But when the paint gets crowded and he has less room for his crafty maneuverability, it’s easier for defenses to disrupt him due to his less-than-ideal explosiveness. Based on tools alone, he struggles to get great separation from NBA defenders, and he’ll need to figure out plenty of ways to compensate for this. Ideally in the NBA, he’ll play with as many floor spacers as possible, and in a heavy screening system designed to open lanes and backdoors to the hoop.
Since he’s shown the ability to change momentum at high speeds and gain some separation in space with his dribbling/pull-back moves, the key skill for Dončić with be the ability to shoot off his fancy dribble. Stop, pop, and hit could be his best NBA weapon. Thankfully, he’s shown excellent promise at that.
While a good amount of Dončić’s efficiencies come with the ball in and moving through his hands, he is used to sharing the ball with other high-usage handlers. Real Madrid teammate Sergio Llull is a traditional point who finished with a 28.5% usage-rate across all leagues last year. Llull missed much of this season due to a knee injury, and his absence allowed/forced Dončić to handle a much larger volume (20.3% usage rate in EuroLeague last year, 27% this year). But since Llull returned in the EuroLeague Final Four, Dončić has benefited from the extra spacing/off-ball movement opportunities afforded to him by Llull‘s presence. Dončić is not a guy who NEEDS to control the ball on every possession, and his time with Llull hints that he‘ll be most effective when he can play with other really competent playmakers.
There’s some concern about Dončić’s consistency from distance—in this, his high-usage breakout year, his three point percentage is at 31.6% across all leagues, and 32.9% in EuroLeague. However, according to overbasket.com, Luka shot 35.3% on standard threes (6.75 to 9 meters, from the EuroLeague three-point line to 29.5 feet). What brought his numbers down was his success on DEEP three pointers (heaved shots), as he was 2 of 17 from beyond 9 meters. That's a lot of noise to draw any sharp conclusion from, but Dončić’s mechanics are consistent and mechanical, so I have little doubt he will be an above-average shooter in the NBA. Note that at 19-years-old, Bogdan Bogdanovic shot 31.1% from three... if Luka can become a near-40% deep shooter (as Bogi was last year), it’ll open up so much spacing for Dončić to thrive in.
Dončić’s shooting ability is as strong as any non-Trae Young player in the lottery. I think his off-ball deep-shot will be the next key step in his development, and it’s the biggest reason I’m so high on his offensive ceiling. He bolsters his offense by forcing his way to the line 7.8 times per 40 minutes (across all leagues); for comparison, De’Aaron Fox, Bogi, and Buddy Hield combine for 7.4 attempts per 40 minutes.
While Dončić is a promising, developing scorer, it isn’t the skill that defines him or has given him his stardom. That is his passing game, where he shows an incredible ability to see the floor and take advantage of the smallest defensive miscues with quick, direct passes. Across all leagues this season, he‘s averaging 6.6 assists per 40 minutes and has a 31.4% assist rate.
It’ll take time for him to get on the same page with his NBA teammates, but he’s going to open up a ton of things for an NBA offense. Look how quickly he turns this corner, processes the defensive attention, and speed the pass to his open teammate. His height and vision are going to be a weapon for a decade.
In Dončić’s quest to get the ball moving as quickly as possible, he’s also become the master of the full-court passes that headlined every Lonzo Ball profile last year.
Considering his usage rate (27%) and assist rate (31.4%), Dončić has moderately few turnovers—only 2.2 per game at a 15.5% rate. He’ll need to clean up some obvious miscues against NBA defenders, learn to play at less-than-max speed, and tighten up his handle, but his 2/1 assist-to-turnover ratio is a solid starting point for a high-usage player.
Defensive Breakdown: Dončić is a better defender than he’s given credit for, but like every non-Jaren Jackson Jr. player at the top of the draft class, he’s got to become more consistently engaged and competent on defense. This is especially important for Dončić, as the first few years of his career will see teams screening guard after guard onto him to test out his instincts and footspeed. But as an individual wing defender and help defender, Dončić has solid, non-elite promise.
Luka makes the smart reads on defense, and can keep up with most of his assignments. Check out this play against Bogi from last year’s Eurobasket competition; Bogdanovic gets an amazing bucket, but Dončić showed he could both keep up with Bogi and contest his shot.
Luka’s clearly got the size and potential strength to handle many NBA wings, but he will struggle against the quickest and craftiest opponents. They WILL try to punish him in isolation plays, and while a master at navigating screens on offense, Dončić didn’t handle heavy-screen plays well on defense.
He will also struggle against the speedier guards on switches, and should never be expected to handle point-of-attack defense. He will need to become a much more instinctual, mentally quick-twitch defender than he already is to handle the physical tools disadvantage. Fortunately, mentally quick-twitch is the overriding definition of Dončić’s whole game.
Dončić is a strong help defender. He’s apt-to over-help at times, and his motor isn’t always in attack mode defensively, but he’s willing to get physical with the ball handler when his teammates gets beat. He’s not a huge shot-blocker, with just a 1.55% rate across all leagues this year, but his reaction time on both of these blocks is tremendous. He also reads passing lanes well, finishing with 1.7 steals per 40 minutes and a 2.34% steal rate.
In the modern switch happy NBA, there are reasons to be concerned about Dončić abilities against a range of NBA athletes. That said, he’s a more aware defender than a majority of the lottery prospects, and his size and strength will cover more wings and forwards than I think fans are expecting given the “unathletic” label. If an NBA weight training program can unlock any additional level of quickness, he can be versatile, non-point-of-attack cover... but more than likely, he’s going to be just a competent, 0.5 defensive plus-minus level player.
Intangibles: Dončić is the most accomplished European prospect in the history of the NBA Draft. He played for the historically renown Real Madrid team, and despite being just 19-years-old and playing in a league that prioritizes veterans, he was the floor leader, alpha scorer, and emotional leader for the team’s EuroLeague championship run. He was the youngest recipient of the EuroLeague MVP, EuroLeague Final Four MVP, and ACB MVP awards. His per 40 minute averages in the 33 EuroLeague games were 24.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.6 steals, and 45.1% shooting.
This is all a oft-repeated rant for a prospect who has seemingly been in the NBA Draft spotlight for ages. Rob Scott’s piece on Dončić (READ IT) did a great job of contextualizing Dončić’s season, his usage, and the concept of Dončić fatigue. Luka’s been a rising European star since 2014, and while the sheer basketball IQ, court vision, and dribble pull-ups of the young man was fascinating to watch... he’s been doing it for three years now. Can he just get into the NBA already?!
But a player so publicized must be made polarized, so debates about his athleticism started up.
Yes, the NBA is a much different league athletically than EuroLeague. Yes, a EuroLeague team will probably roster 2-3 guys with NBA-level explosiveness. Yes, Luka Dončić will have a serious transition period where he will have to learn to adjust his moves, his shot, his handle, and his passes to compensate for defenders faster than he’s regularly seen before. These are all true statements.
But if you’re doubting that Dončić, one of the highest bball-IQ youngsters in recent memory, won’t be able to figure out ways to compensate against NBA athletes... well, go tell Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Dražen Petrović, Toni Kukoč, Peja Stojaković, or Vlade Divac they wasted their time. Who could possibly become smart and skilled enough to beat somewhat superior athletes?
To be fair, listing the best European players ever as a reason Dončić will succeed is as unreasonable as posting the past EuroLeague MVPs and their success in the NBA as a reason Luka won’t succeed. But none of them won the award at 19 and entered the league this young, with this many prime-years to adjust and develop.
There are also plenty of avenues for Dončić to improve pieces of his functional athleticism once he gets into an NBA weight training program. While exact measurements aren’t available, he certainly looks stouter than is optimal for his NBA future. He’s been playing basketball non-stop for the last 18 months; when he has the chance to get into a NBA weight training program, he’s going to come out a refined physical player. He’s also going to continue his work with P3 Sports Science, a “peak performance” training program that aims to optimize physical tools.
The fact that Dončić assumed the role of alpha scorer and floor leader for a EuroLeague powerhouse can’t be stressed enough.It wasn’t without bumps in the road, and there were times where his fiery personality crossed the line into immaturity ( that foul really wasn’t Dončić’s fault, though). But this year wasn’t the only example of Dončić playing top-option. Luka helped lead Slovenia to their first Eurobasket title in 2017, and Miami All-Star Goran Dragic allowed him to lead the team in crucial games. In the quarter finals against Latvia—facing Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis—Dončić had 27 points, including some huge baskets when he switched onto Porzingis.
Dončić plays with the insane confidence and swagger any team could hope to have from a top option. And Dončić shares one trait with the Kings young developing core—he’s got the clutch gene.
Fit with Sacramento: Dončić would be a great fit considering the Kings primary needs, and Sacramento would provide Dončić with a foundation benefiting his skills and (some) of his weaknesses. It’s a win-win, but come June 21st, the organization may disagree.
Dave Joerger spoke repeatedly about the Kings needing to increase their pace and toughness, two things Dončić would add immediately. Dončić’s best traits come out in the open floor, and from the moment his team snags the ball he’s full-throttle; he’d be the nitro-boost this team needs to jolt up that pace up.
A four-man guard/wing rotation of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdanovic, and Dončić gives the Kings an potentially amazing foundation of the most critical modern-NBA skills—speed, handling, playmaking, and shooting—from the most critical positions in the modern NBA. That four man squad could hopefully give the Kings offense a world of spacing and point-of-attack options.
That spacing comes assuming the Kings young bigs play more (and earn their minutes) over the average-paced Kosta Koufos and the negative-paced Zach Randolph. Whichever one of Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, or Harry Giles ends up being in the Kings long-term plans can benefit from Dončić’s strengths in Sacramento’s horn-set pick-and-roll offense, and they can all fly with the Kings heightened speed. But none of the bigs are proven shooters yet, so the floor spacing wouldn’t be immediately optimal for Dončić’s space-dependent game. Selecting Dončić means the Kings would be missing out on a truly legendary big man class—a class that could have a huge impact on the value of the position going forward—but they shouldn’t overthink that and pass on the best player available, especially given the value of playmaking, high-shooting wings.
Dončić doesn’t solve the Kings defensive issues going forward, but he doesn’t hurt them, either. He gives the Kings a smart help defender who isn’t afraid to attack the ball, and after he adjusts to NBA speed, I expect he’d be an average defender at worst. Taking Luka continues to leave Sacramento absent a young lock-down guard/wing... but that’s not a skill they were going to get at the top of this draft class.
Fox might not like the idea of playing with another high-usage ball handler, and it’s a detriment to his current skill set to take the ball out of his hands. However, this is no Fox/Trae Young pairing; Dončić has proven he can be a strong off-ball shooter, and defenses wary of Dončić’s scoring abilities will stick to him much closer than they will to Justin Jackson. As long as the Kings maintain a strong ball-control balance between Fox and Dončić, there should be plenty of touches for both of them. As the Warriors and Rockets have proven over the past 18 months, the best NBA teams both roster and utilize as many strong playmakers as possible.
Meanwhile, playing with Fox and Bogdanovic could really benefit Dončić. As Dončić’s time playing with Llull and Dragic showed, he can be at his best when he’s playing as a secondary initiator next to a point who can shoot. As long as Fox’s shot does improve (and I’m optimistic it will), he could make a great thunder-and-lightning complement with Dončić, and allow Luka to roam the court and hunt for mismatches. The biggest question would be if Fox can develop into a strong point-of-attack defender, because that is not Dončić’s game.
Regardless of what you think about Divac’s abilities as a GM, he of all decision-makers SHOULD understand the transition between European basketball and the NBA better than most. If Vlade and the front office feel that Michael Porter Jr. or Marvin Bagley III are higher ceiling players or fit the Kings roster better, they both have the scoring potential to live up to the high selection. But of those three players, I think Dončić is both the safest, and the most likely to be a high-usage AND high-efficiency player.
You should not let Dončić’s physical tools be the major cap in his potential ceiling. His mental awareness is as quick as any prospect I’ve seen at his age, and given his development over the past year, there’s no reason to think he’s close to finished refining his skill set. Armed with his IQ, handle, passing skills, and off-the-dribble shot, he’s as primed as anyone in the class to be a high-level scorer, and he’s an ideal playmaking wing for the modern NBA game.