Hawks draft prospect watch: Luka Doncic, Real Madrid

Luka Doncic
Luka Doncic

The Hawks will have two first-round draft picks: their own selection in the lottery and the No. 30 pick via Houston. They will have a third first-round pick if the Timberwolves stay on track to quality for the playoffs.

This is the 10th of my occasional reports on prospects expected to be selected in the first round of the draft. 

Previous entries

Club: Real Madrid (Liga ACB, EuroLeague)

Hometown: Ljubljana, Slovenia

Height/weight: 6-8, 228 (measured)

Age: 19 (Feb. 28,1999)

ESPN draft projection: 2nd

Doncic has been a top player in Euroleague for the past two seasons despite turning 19 years old in February. Producing at a high level against professionals at such a young age may be unprecedented. Doing so while displaying a skillset that seems suited for the NBA game is why Doncic projects to be selected early in the NBA draft this summer.

All indications are that Doncic is almost certain to be a good NBA player at point guard, both wing positions and perhaps even small-ball power forward. But the Hawks are among the NBA teams with questions about Doncic’s potential to be a franchise-changing player, which is the goal for teams picking near the top of the draft. And most of those questions center on Doncic’s relative lack of athletic ability.

I watched watched a handful of Doncic's games (via Euroleague.tv), and it appears his athletic ability is ordinary by NBA standards. He is crafty with a very good handle and seems to understand the angles. But Doncic relies on his size and strength to create scoring chances around the basket.

According to Synergy Sports data, Doncic doesn’t get to the rim much. From what I saw, Doncic prefers to pull up and shoot over defenders in the short mid-range area or use his strong crossover dribble to set up step-back jumpers. Doncic has been an efficient 2-point scorer for Real Madrid but those shots are difficult to convert consistently in the NBA.

According to ESPN's Mike Schmitz, Doncic's lateral quickness was measured by P3 Sports Science during the summers of 2015 and 2016. The conclusion: "His slide agility times ... straddle the NBA average for a guard." P3 said Doncic has "very competitive lateral acceleration and change of direction ability when comparing him to our NBA data set."

“Average” athletic ability doesn’t invoke images of a special NBA player. That doesn’t mean Doncic won’t be an All-NBA player someday. He could improve his athletic ability --P3 said his results on the quickness test improved substantially in the past year — or he may be so skilled that those limitations won’t matter so much.

Still, it appears Doncic will have to overcome physical shortcomings to be an NBA superstar. So much of being a perimeter player in the NBA requires the ability to turn the corner on screen-rolls, gain separation from the primary defender, then burst to the basket and finish over lengthy NBA rim protectors. Right now, Doncic doesn’t appear to have a special ability to do that.

However, Doncic is an excellent player in the open court. His end-to-end, straight line speed seems to be very good. If he can be a good transition player in the NBA that could mitigate any shortcomings in the half court.

Agility is important on defense, too, and Doncic’s position means he will have to guard athletic point guards and wings who can get to the basket. Doncic’s steals percentage is low (2.42 in all competitions this season). In the Real Madrid games I watched, Doncic spent most of his time on defense playing off the ball. Can he contain NBA ball-handlers of the dribble?

An NBA lottery team is going to take a chance that Doncic’s athletic limitations won’t prevent him from becoming a great NBA player. There’s because there is a lot to like about Doncic, including the fact that projections for him are less speculative than those for American college prospects.

Doncic plays in the Spanish ACB, the world’s second-best league, and in EuroLeague play against the continent’s best clubs. Though Doncic just turned 19 in February, he has produced for club power Real Madrid while playing against much older professionals.

Physically, Doncic is a big wing by NBA standards (though his wingspan appears to be average). He has the rebounding production to match his size: 11.2 rebounds per 40 minutes at 2017 Eurobasket, and 5.3 per game in ACB and Euroleague play this season.

Yet Doncic runs an offense and creates like a point guard. In his midseason review of Doncic, Ben Falk of Cleaning the Glass writes: "Even at his age, Doncic possesses a sophisticated understanding of defensive rotations, in a way that only some of the best NBA passers do."

Doncic’s feel and basketball IQ are advanced. His court vision is excellent — several times I saw Doncic appear to be out of control on drives before suddenly zipping pinpoint passes to teammates on the perimeter. It didn’t appear Doncic had a good plan on those plays, but he seemed to be thinking ahead to how the defense would shift and his teammates would react before contorting his body to make crisp passes at the last possible moment.

In 25 EuroLeague games this season Doncic has produced 6.5 assists per 36 minutes. Last season he recorded 7.7 assists per 36 minutes (and, remember, he was just 17-years old when the season began).

Doncic's production as a scorer also has been strong: 22.1 points per 36 minutes in all competitions this season, with 23.6 points per 36 minutes in EuroLeague play. He's been a very efficient scorer in pick-and-rolls. Per bballbreakdown.com, as of January, Doncic ranked in the 93rd percentile in EuroLeague points per possession on pick-and-rolls with a 60.7 effective field-goal percentage.

But that again brings us back to Doncic’s athletic ability. NBA decision-makers must decide if Doncic can be the same kind of screen-roll scorer in the NBA. His lack of burst around the basket could be a liability against better competition, especially if his 3-point shooting doesn’t improve.

Doncic is shooting only 30.4 percent on 3-pointers in all competition this season (76-for-250), including 27 percent in ACB play. Last season he shot 33.3 percent (76-for-228) on 3-pointers in all competitions. (The FIBA 3-point line distance is in between the NCCA and the NBA’s.)

Those numbers may not be as bad as they seem because of context. Doncic takes a high percentage of his 3-point shots off the dribble, especially off what appears to be his favorite move, the step-back jumper. He would get more spot-up opportunities in the NBA and there’s evidence that he can make those at a good clip.

Falk reports that from last season through mid-January this year, Synergy tracking data showed that Doncic made about 40 percent of his-catch-and-shoot 3-point tries. And Doncic has shot 81 percent on free throws in all competitions over the past two seasons, with that stat correlating strongly with NBA 3-point potential.

Doncic’s advanced feel for the game likely influenced is by his background. His father, Sasa, played professionally in Europe and now coaches in the top Slovenian league. Doncic made his debut with Real Madrid’s senior team when he was 16.

No doubt Donic’s toughness and confidence have been forged through facing older professionals at such a young age. Those traits shined through in one of Doncic’s games that I watched, last Friday at KK Crvena Zvezda in Belgrade, Serbia.

Doncic was having a bad second half — smaller, quicker defenders were giving him fits with ball pressure — and coach Pablo Laso benched Doncic for a stretch late in the fourth quarter. (Doncic committed seven turnovers against Crvena Zvezda and six in his next game, against Unicaja Malaga, which may be a sign of him working back into form after missing time with a leg injury.)

But Doncic returned to the game and delivered this go-ahead score with 0.9 seconds left to beat the team he grew up rooting for.

Earlier this season, Doncic told ESPN that he enjoys the big moments.

"I feel like I want to be the hero of the game, you know?" Doncic said. "Every time I wanted the ball in my hands, from the very beginning. I have missed some important shots before but you need to learn from this. You need to move on. If you have a nice game or a bad game, you will have a thousand more games."

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