By Rob Scott | @robscott33
To those who have been following his career since he splashed a three from the wing on his first possession in pro basketball back in 2015, Luka Doncic fatigue is a real issue. Heck, a lot of people knew all about the Slovenian phenom when he was 14. His unprecedented success for an 18 year old at the ACB and EuroLeague level seems mundane, his heroics so normal that it’s difficult not to become blasé, to take him for granted and to nitpick his game.
It’s sometimes difficult to write about Doncic without being accused of being under the editorial direction of Captain Obvious. The guy is really, really good at basketball, no kidding? There’s not a lot to project, to soothsay and tantalise, it’s all pretty much here for all to see. Look at this video of Luka running picture perfect pick and roll! Look at these clips of Luka draining pull up threes! This kid is really good? You don’t say…
Some of the viewer’s fatigue might be attributed to the tonal shift in Luka’s role on this year’s Madrid. In amongst Sergio Llull and a still-functioning Rudy Fernandez, he was able to duck and dive around them, swooping into the paint with a subtle feint to the rim or a between-the-legs flick to the corner to set up a triple.
Doncic was still a kid, toying with us, daring to invent new ways of making us smile and shake our heads in admiration. Now, he’s the main breadwinner for a huge family, one that depends on him to Do The Right Thing, reliably, every day. It seems to be wearing on him. It’s wearing on us, too. His play has become attritional, accumulative. Routine, even.
Sorry, Luka can’t go and pop wheelies tonight, he’s got work in the morning. Serious work. The kind where handsomely paid grown men look to him for direction and leadership. Clocking in to pound the ball as the supporting cast look around at each other and then back to the kid.
Real Madrid lost the Copa del Rey final to Barcelona last Sunday, and Doncic had a curious stat line. 14 points on 1-of-8 shooting, 12-of-16 from the line, 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Madrid rebounded from that loss to destroy the same opponent 101-74 only five days later in a EuroLeague matchup. Doncic sat for the first quarter, and in his absence, the ball zipped around with a purpose. Luka picked up 6 assists but struggled again from the floor with a 1-for-7 line.
The familiarity of his shooting struggles might be a little alarming if not viewed in the context of a team that is leaning on him far too strongly. He looks a little bit out of rhythm lately, pressing to make sure the next shot is the one that breaks the drought. But that has to be seen against the backdrop of expectation, pressure, workload and physical tiredness.
Doncic is anything but a ballhog at heart. He’s capable of so much, with every pass in a Tolstoy-length playbook jumping off the page, that his teammates have been deferring to him way past the point that it’s fair to expect any star player to succeed without hiccups. Those teammates include EuroLeague champions and former NBA players, by the way. And yet this star, at 18 years old, has been handling it all anyway.
Whilst all this is going on, the NBA Draft build-up has started in earnest, and attention from across the Atlantic, already at fever pitch compared to the average overseas prospect, is about to ramp up even further, possibly just as tiredness from shouldering this workload might be biting.
Some of the toughest things for the uninitiated of our American friends to understand about overseas draft prospects is putting their performance in context. His 17.2 PPG in EuroLeague might seem pedestrian until you realise that’s second overall. The last teenager to average 17.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists as the lead ball handler on a contending EuroLeague team was… nobody. The closest age-comparable player from European history is Drazen Petrovic, who starred in the Korac Cup final at 18.
The second issue with projecting Doncic is that 6’8” point guards who can guard positions 1 to 4 don’t grow on trees. What position will he play? Will he deal with NBA athleticism? Will he be able to break down his man off the dribble? Blah. Blah. Blah. That will be the refrain from now until June at least.
I don’t think it matters. It doesn’t matter how big your basketball IQ chart is, he’s off it. First of all, as Sam Meyerkopf said on our podcast recently, breaking down a set defense at the end of the shot clock as everyone else stands around isn’t Luka’s game.
He’s a flow-of-the-game player, and his ability to attack closeouts, make the right pass to cutting teammates, run pick and roll in a fluid halfcourt offense, and make pull ups as and when needed is already NBA level. He would be best in a double-playmaker offense, not cast as a Chris Paul-esque quarterback. Look at his success alongside Goran Dragic for Slovenia in the summer, for example.
He excels in early offense, grabbing rebounds and pushing the pace, seeing the whole floor as he conducts the break. Check out the videos here by Tobias Berger and DraftExpress. This article isn’t going to be a film-study breakdown because all that stuff has been done. The phenom has been covered in more detail by more ‘scouting-y’ people than me. Again, what else is left to say?
We’re not going to hate on anyone for not watching Real Madrid’s games if they have a full NBA and college slate to follow, God knows there aren’t enough hours in the day. Although don’t dare say he’s a ‘mystery’ starring in the second-best competition in the world, as well as the best domestic league outside the US. It’s a lot easier to get a grasp of the Doncic phenomenon if you can picture a comparison. NBA Draft comps are always imperfect, often lazy (and occasionally borderline racist!) so forgive this, but the NBA simile that springs to mind here is Paul Pierce. Allow this to be my contribution to the crowded debate.
Pierce never had the point guard chops that Doncic has, but his smooth, never-in-a-hurry game reminds me of the young Slovene. Early-era Pierce was a good athlete, but by the time he became The Truth his go-to weapons were those long strides, languid stroke and the full range of head fakes and lean-ins that made up his crafty pull-up game.
Neither guy here is blowing by their man with pure speed or hops, they use their creativity and length to release the ball from a spot where nobody can block the jumper. Although it’s true that NBA defenders tend to be longer than EuroLeague opponents, Doncic’s listed 2.03m on DraftExpress is likely an underestimate. Look at him alongside much ‘taller’ players and I think he’ll measure up at around 6’9”. He’s going to be able to shoot over defenders or get to a spot where they can’t alter his shot, even if he can’t put them on his heels. Or perhaps more likely, he’ll spot an open teammate on the other side of the floor and whip a scarcely-believable pass right into their hands.
Doncic is stil an open book, at such a young age he still has room to develop his step-back jumper, his strength, conditioning, athleticism, pretty much everything. That’s the truly scary part. As you’ve been told countless times because you’ve already read a million Doncic articles. You’re going to be reading a lot more.
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