In retrospect, perhaps the easiest call in the 2018 NBA Draft was taking the teenager who dominated the Euroleague, the second-best basketball league in the world.
Luka Doncic, the 19-year-old Slovenian who won an MVP in the Euroleague, was seen as the clear-cut top NBA prospect for most of the 2017-18 season. Then, suddenly, before the draft, things went the other way.
Concerns about Doncic’s skill set and athleticism suddenly crept into the discussion, and soon, Arizona’s Deandre Ayton became the No. 1 prospect, while the Sacramento Kings were said to be interested in other players with the second overall pick. Some experts had Doncic sliding from the top three to closer to sixth, seventh, or eighth.
Sure enough, on draft day, Ayton went No. 1, Duke’s Marvin Bagley went second, and the Atlanta Hawks were set to take Trae Young with the third overall pick when the Dallas Mavericks swooped in. Dallas offered the fifth pick and their 2019 first-rounder to the Hawks so that they could take Doncic at No. 3. Now it looks like the move of the draft.
Doncic’s rookie year puts him in good company
Through 19 games, Doncic is the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year. The 6-foot-7 forward is averaging 19 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists per game while shooting 45% from the field and 39% from three for the surprising 10-9 Mavericks.
Doncic’s rookie-year numbers put him in good company. Only seven other NBA players have averaged at least 19, 6, and 4 per game as rookies — the list includes Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Elgin Baylor, and Grant Hill.
But perhaps what’s most impressive about Doncic is the way he plays. With each mounting highlight, Doncic shows a poise unlike other rookies and an overall feel for the game that few players have — period.
In a 112-109 win over the Golden State Warriors in November, Doncic put up 24 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists, commanding the ball in the clutch and going right at the reigning champs.
The pre-draft argument for Doncic was that he was out-performing grown men in Europe — the adjustment to the NBA wouldn’t be too bad. Indeed, Doncic doesn’t seem afraid of the spotlight or playing against other household stars.
You know Doncic has a long leash when he’s taking step-back threes against James Harden.
And he has a flair for the dramatic.
On top of it all, Doncic plays like a seasoned playmaker. His assist totals don’t show it, but he has great court vision and is unselfish. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Doncic is second among rookies in passes made per game, fourth in secondary assists (a pass that leads to an assist), and second in potential assists (a teammate misses a shot after his pass) with 9.2 per game. He ranks 33rd among all NBA players in the latter category.
Doncic’s arrhythmic drives and patience allow him to survey the floor and poke holes in defenses that are suddenly drawn to him.
There were concerns about Doncic’s athleticism and ability to separate coming into the NBA. But so far, he’s shooting 61.5% at the rim, and despite not being an explosive jumper, he gets by opposing defenders with his deft handle and then takes contact because of his frame. He should only continue to improve physically as he adjusts to the NBA. Mahoney noted that Doncic has already lost weight in the NBA, as the Mavs have stayed on top of his fitness and diet.
Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle told Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney of Doncic: “He’s an authentic original. He’s truly unlike any specific player that I’ve ever seen.”
The NBA is impressed
After an early November win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in which Doncic had 22 points, 6 rebounds, and 8 assists, offered more praise for Doncic’s poise.
“He’s got a good feel for the game. He reads situations well, and he knows that, before the game is over, he’ll have the ball in his hands enough. He plays beyond his years in terms of reading things, mixing aggression and unselfishness.”
Dirk Nowitzki repeatedly said that Doncic is far ahead of where he was when he came to the NBA as a teenager.
“He’s polished. He’s skilled,” Kevin Durant said after the Mavs beat the Warriors. “You can tell that he played professional basketball already and they’ve got a great guy in him to lead this franchise in the future.”
Harden, after losing to Doncic and the Mavs on Wednesday, simply said, “He can play.”
Thus far, Doncic has the makings of a franchise star, one who could help the Mavericks swiftly transition from the Nowitzki era to the next. They’ve missed the playoffs three seasons in a row, but this year, they’re back in the mix. Nowitzki hasn’t played yet, but the young core of Doncic, Dennis Smith Jr., and Dorian Finney-Smith, plus veterans like DeAndre Jordan, Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews, and J.J. Barea have helped Dallas get off to a surprising start.
When reached by Business Insider for comment on Doncic’s progress this season, Mavs owner Mark Cuban offered a simple praise.
“So far, so good.”