25 under 25: Luka Doncic is ready for his closeup

Art by Andrew Maahs -- @BasemintDesign
Art by Andrew Maahs -- @BasemintDesign /

The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over this week. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 NBA players under the age of 25.

Luka Doncic could hardly have done more to prove himself worthy of the top selection in this year’s NBA Draft. His accomplishments in Europe 00 2018 Euroleague and ACB MVP, Euroleague Final Four MVP, 2017 Eurobasket Champion and Eurobasket All-Tournament team — outclass those of any teenager ever, and his combination of production, size and innate feel for the game portends well for his short- and long-term future in the NBA. And yet, Dončić slipped to the third pick on draft night, marking a momentous win for Dallas, who traded the fifth pick and its 2019 first rounder (top-five protected) to acquire him.

If his career in Europe foreshadows his NBA future, he’ll be well worth the cost. While he doesn’t have Deandre Ayton’s freak athleticism or Trae Young’s limitless shooting range, Dončić projects as versatile primary initiator with superstar upside and a prototypical modern lead guard. His floor as an NBA player is higher than that of most of his peers (no rookie is ranked higher on our list than Dončić), but that doesn’t make his ceiling any lower. For the time being, he will serve a vital role on a team poised to take a sizeable step forward in 2019. As Smith initiates sets, DeAndre Jordan crams home lobs and Harrison Barnes isolates on the wing, Dončić — 6-foot-8 and capable in most any offensive role — can simply fill the spaces in between.

Luka Doncic
Art by Andrew Maahs — @BasemintDesign /

A natural pick-and-roll maestro, Dončić is most effective in a two-man game with the floor spread around him. He has the size and vision to make every pass and possesses a preternatural feel for the game. He could enter the NBA as one of the 20 best passers in the league. The timing, accuracy and sheer intellect with which he spots teammates isn’t impressive for a player his age, it’s extraordinary, period. The smartest passers in the NBA understand not just their own team’s objectives and principles, but their opponents’ as well, understanding that by pushing the defense in the right spots or pulling it just so, certain areas become vulnerable.

Dončić already has that sort of conceptual knowledge. He anticipates not only how the defense will react to his every movement, but when, and knows where his teammates will move in turn. Sag down too far on a roll man — like Jordan — and Dončić will zip the ball to a teammate on the weak side. Stay home on the shooter, and he’ll find the big for an easy layup.

Dončić isn’t especially quick, but he’s crafty and deceptive with great instincts and polished moves. He eagerly pushes the ball after rebounds and scored 1.38 points per possession in transition last year. In the half court, he’s already a master at manipulating the defense with ball fakes or no-look passes that cause defenders to lean one way as Dončić threads a tight seam:

He’s unusually patient for a player so young, and very few decisions are predetermined. Dončić takes his time probing the defense, taking swift, decisive action when an opening materializes. He has a keen understanding of how to set up and use ball screens, just as often snaking them as rejecting them. He’ll zig-zag behind a pick, then attack the basket with the defense bent out of shape:

He scored 0.96 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler last year, a mark that would have led the Mavericks. In lieu of elite explosiveness, Dončić has a variety of finishing moves around the basket and his size gives him an advantage most guards simply don’t have. He shot 61.5 percent in the restricted area last season and 59 percent overall from 2-point range, using floaters and scoop layups to catch defenders off-balance:

Still, finishing at the rim could be a challenge at the NBA level, where shot-blockers are longer, bouncier and more disciplined. The NBA learning curve, both physical and mental, is steep, and while Dončić is better equipped to scale it than most, expecting an exact translation of his career in Europe sets an unfairly high bar for the 19-year-old. Having access to NBA training programs should make him quicker and stronger, but natural limitations may prevent Dončić from ever becoming devastating athletically.

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Even if he tops out as an average athlete, he may still be able to leverage his passing and shooting into open driving lanes. Despite a down season from 3 last year, Dončić is a dangerous shooter with ample time and space to launch. His stroke is clean and consistent, and his footwork tidy enough to compensate for a deliberate release. He has flashed some off-the-dribble shooting ability, particularly moving to his left, and has moves he can use to create separation:

Dončić should develop into a passable pull-up shooter at the very least, but that element of his game may come along more slowly than the rest of his game. His 3-point distribution in the NBA should consist mainly of catch-and-shoot triples, shots that will be easier to come by in Dallas than in Madrid. He won’t have to carry as heavy a load with other threats around him, and he stands to benefit from Nowitzki’s gravity and Smith’s bursts to the rim. Dončić, for his part, can reciprocate by opening up the floor and simplifying the offense for his teammates. Before long, he may find himself at the center of it all.