Luka Doncic was too slow. He was overweight. He was only a 31 percent three-point shooter. He put up numbers in EuroLeague, sure, but it wasn’t going to work against more athletic defenders in the NBA.
These were the common refrains from Doncic’s doubters as he entered the 2018 NBA Draft. At the time, it wasn’t hard to find people calling Doncic a bust, a second-round pick, a player who should have stayed in Europe instead. It wasn’t just certain groups of fans who were questioning Doncic: three teams at the top of the draft had the opportunity to take him, and all decided they would be better off with another player.
The debate over Doncic’s draft stock was re-litigated again after another brilliant performance against the Sacramento Kings, one of the teams that decided to pass on him. This time, Doncic dropped 33 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists in a blowout win. The Dallas Mavericks are firmly in the playoff picture and continue to out-perform every reasonable expectation entering the season. It’s mostly because Doncic is a legitimate MVP candidate in his second season at 20 years old.
Why did three teams pass on Doncic? Each one had their own reasons. The Phoenix Suns believed they didn’t need another wing next to Devin Booker. Franchisee Robert Starver, a University of Arizona alum, preferred a fellow Wildcat in Deandre Ayton. The Kings doubted Doncic’s upside, and his fit next to De’Aaron Fox. Vlade Divac also reportedly didn’t get along with Doncic’s dad. The Atlanta Hawks started their rebuild with former Warriors assistant general manager Travis Schlenk, who opted for a purported Stephen Curry clone in Trae Young while adding another top-10 draft pick by trading down with Dallas.
Phoenix’s season started off promising, but the team is going to miss the playoffs again and is miles away from real contention. The Kings’ year has been a mess and hasn’t featured the type of internal development they were hoping for. The Hawks have the third worst record in the NBA. Even if Ayton and Young are already very good players and Marvin Bagley III still has loads of potential, it’s obvious at this point that each team would have been better off with Doncic.
What miscalculations did these franchises make in evaluating Doncic? It all seems so obvious in hindsight.
Elite athleticism isn’t a requirement to be a star
Because Michael Jordan and LeBron James are the two best basketball players ever, it’s easy to get tricked into thinking every star needs to have the world-class athleticism they had. Think about it for two seconds and you realize that simply isn’t true. Larry Bird wasn’t exactly noted for his speed on his way to being one of the best players of the ‘80s. Curry can barely dunk. The list goes on.
More appropriately, Doncic is an incredible athlete, just not in the ways we traditionally think about athleticism. His ability to absorb contact and finish through defenders at the rim is tremendously effective. What he lacks in a quick first step he makes up for with a powerful last step. It requires a considerable amount of strength and body control to throw some of the passes he makes.
In an era of NBA basketball that is defined by skill rather than size and leaping ability, Doncic’s purported athletic shortcomings were always going to be overblown.
Doncic could always shoot
It’s true Doncic shot just 33 percent from three-point range in 2016-2017 and 31 percent from deep in 2017-2018. Yes, he only hit 31 percent of his threes while leading Slovenia to the gold medal in 2017 FIBA Eurobasket, too. While those percentages are underwhelming, it’s mostly because of the types of threes Doncic was taking.
For the same reason that George Hill isn’t a better three-point shooter than Curry, Doncic was always a better shooter than his percentages indicated. He wasn’t exactly attempting wide-open catch-and-shoot threes off looks created by teammates. Rather, Doncic typically had to create looks for himself off the dribble, with defenses programed to try to run him off the three-point line. Those shots are harder to make, but they’re still ultra valuable.
Doncic is hitting only 32.3 percent of his threes this season, but he’s averaging more than nine attempts per game. He’s essentially copied James Harden’s step-back and side-step three, and he’s hoisting up three-point shots with incredible volume. His three-point rate is more important than his three-point percentage in that regard — those difficult attempts keep opposing defenses honest and opens up the rest of his game for both himself and his teammates.
Not all shooters are created equal. Doncic is living proof of that.
Doncic’s EuroLeague domination shouldn’t have been taken for granted
This was always the most ridiculous criticism of Doncic’s game. The EuroLeague is the second-best league in the world, and Doncic was literally its MVP as an 18-year-old. He left the league after leading his Real Madrid team to a championship where he was named Final Four MVP, as well.
If the American perception of EuroLeague is it’s full of slow, bad basketball players, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The leading scorers this year all have significant NBA experience. There’s a long history of impressive EuroLeague numbers translating directly to the NBA. It’s also full of grown men, which gave Doncic an experience his peers who played college basketball couldn’t match.
The idea that the ACC or Pac-12 offered superior competition to EuroLeague was flat-out wrong and stupid. Remember that the next time a player who thrived in that league makes the jump to the NBA.
Not everyone was wrong about Doncic
There were plenty of outlets and lots of fans who rightfully considered Doncic the best prospect in the draft at the time. SB Nation had him Doncic at No. 1 from the day after the 2017 draft and never moved him. Draft site The Stepien made a long, hard case for Doncic to be considered the top prospect. The Mavericks had Doncic as the No. 1 player on their board, and surely lots of other teams did, too.
For many people, it was clear Doncic was both the best player in the draft and best fit for the way the league was evolving. The Suns, Kings, and Hawks didn’t see it that way. It’s their loss.