Every season the draft brings a fresh infusion of talent to the NBA. In theory this is an even, steady process. In practice, hindsight and historical perspective show that there are borders and boundaries — talent doesn’t just arrive in the NBA, it arrives in generational waves. Sometimes we can’t see these aesthetic dividing lines for decades, sometimes you simply can’t miss them.
The present day NBA appears to be on the cusp of welcoming a remarkable new generation to its forefront — players who are not just incredible but incredibly unique. Players who will not just excel but transform the roles and responsibilities of basketball players as we understand them. Over the course of this week, The Step Back will be examining many of the players who could figure prominently in The Next Generation. Not every player we turn our attention to is destined to be a star, but all could play a role in defining the future of the NBA. Read the whole series here.
The Next Generation: Luka Doncic
If you don’t know the name Luka Doncic stop reading this now, open YouTube and watch all the clips and highlights you can before coming back.
Doncic has the potential to be the best European-born player of all-time. He even has a Lavar Ball type of hype placed on his head by his own dad, Sasa Doncic, “Luka does it all. … He can go 1 through 4 on the floor,” Sasa told Bleacher Report. “I don’t like to compare him with others, but he has a little bit of Toni Kukoc, he sees the court like Dejan Bodiroga, he moves like Drazen Petrovic and he passes like Milos Teodosic.”
That might not be as braggadocios as saying his son would make the Golden State Warriors better than Stephen Curry, but the comparisons Sasa made feature a murderers row of European talent. When your son can hit a one-legged step-back fadaway 3-pointer or set the Internet ablaze with just one possession it’s hard not to get carried away about what his future holds.
At just 18-years-old, Doncic is one of the best players in the ACB — often defined as the second best basketball league in the entire world. Doncic has been part of the Real Madrid club since he was 13 and has been on the senior roster since 16. With Sergio Rodriguez jumping ship to the Philadelphia 76ers this offseason, the opportunity arose for Doncic to get more playing time, and he’s running with it. You could argue only Sergio Llull has been better than Doncic this season, and, again, it will be a year before Doncic is even eligible for the NBA Draft.
As a prospect, Doncic offers the size and skill that causes scouts to drool incessantly. He can pass as well as Ricky Rubio and he’s the most complete teenage prospect since LeBron James. When compared to other teenage phenoms before him, Doncic is a complete player as a teen.
The easiest — and most lazy — comparison to make for Doncic is Rubio. Rubio also made noise as a youngster in the ACB. He began playing in the premiere European league at the ripe age of 14 for DKV Joventut Badalona. By 16, Rubio led the ACB in steals. For three straight seasons (2007-2009) Rubio was named FIBA Europe Young Player of the Year. He would finish his ACB career by playing two seasons with ACB juggernaut FC Barcelona. There he captured a EuroLeague championship, the ACB Defensive Player of the Year and EuroLeague Rising Star award.
Doncic didn’t get to play on the senior level as early as Rubio, but he’s been part of Real Madrid since the age of 13 — they signed him to a five-year contract. He spent a few seasons playing on Madrid’s U-16 and U-18 teams before making his debut on the senior club at the age of 16. He’s not the defender Rubio was at the same stage, but at 6-foot-8 and with the ability to play either guard position, he’s been able to have a bigger overall impact on the game. There’s also the fact that Doncic is capable of making perimeter shots, whereas Rubio’s best shot was a pass.
A more appropriate comparison for Doncic is LeBron James. Before closing down your browser and cursing my name to the high heavens for committing basketball sacrilege, just hear me out.
Both James and Doncic have the size of traditional small forwards but are at their best with the ball in their hands. Both are unselfish players always willing to hit the open man and make the right basketball play regardless of time and situation. Finally, I’m not saying if you swapped the two players the Cleveland Cavaliers would be as good of a team as they are now.
What I am saying, is at age 18 these two prospects share a lot more similarities than Rubio and Doncic do.
LeBron James is one of the greatest high school players of all-time. He was hands down the number one prospect in his class and dominated in the AAU, All-Star and All-American games. However, Doncic is a top player on one of the best teams in the second best basketball league in the world. Doncic’s numbers won’t blow you away, but in the limited time he does get he’s showcased supreme talent.
If you plopped Doncic down into a high school gym in Anywhere, USA he’d be the toast of social media. He has a knack for flair. If he’s doing things like that against grown men just imagine the type of havoc he’d wreak on kids worried about puberty, prom dates and SAT scores.
No mortal is ever going to have a comparable combination of size, athleticism and strength as James. But in terms of basketball IQ, versatility and overall feel of the game, Doncic is right on par with 18-year-old LeBron.
Doncic is a master in pick-and-roll situations. He has the confidence to bury 3-pointers if the defense goes underneath the screen, the vision and patience to hit the open roll man if the defense over helps, and the athleticism and craftiness to finish around the rim with either hand in multiple ways.
One area Doncic actually bests James (both the teenage phenom and the current three-time champion) is his perimeter shooting. James is a streaky shooter at best. Teams will play under screens and hesitate to close out on James if there’s a better shooter nearby. Doncic has netted 39.7 and 39.5 (as of Mar. 5) of his 3-pointers in the last two seasons. That would top all but two of James’ NBA seasons .
Playing with the likes of ball-dominant guards like Sergio Llull and Rudy Fernandez has helped Doncic develop into a threat as a shooter off the catch. When he does get to run the show he’s kept defenders honest with his ability to hit 3-pointers off the catch as well. With Doncic, there really isn’t one glaring weakness. He’s a true jack-of-all-trades. Being comfortable playing both on and off ball make him the prototypical player for the modern NBA.
Nine Slovenian players have made the NBA — featuring illustrious names like Sasha Vujacic, Beno Udrih, Bostjan Nachbar, Rasho Nesterovic, Zoran Dragic and Goran Dragic — and Doncic is already a better prospect than any of them. With his contract with Real Madrid ending next year (the same time he can enter the NBA Draft) the wait for him to become a household name is only months away.