When the Oklahoma City Thunder traveled to Spain this past week, they played an absolute banger of a preseason game against Real Madrid. The Thunder ultimately won a 142-137 battle in overtime, but Real Madrid showed their immense potential as a European team by counterpunching nearly everything Oklahoma City threw at them. Spanish superstar Sergio Llull dazzled with 22 points. Former NBA washout Anthony Randolph had 12 points. And Americans got a brief intro to 17-year old Slovenian guard Luka Doncic, who had 3 points, five rebounds, and four assists off the bench.
Doncic is a 2018 NBA Draft prospect who’s come up through the Real Madrid development system at an alarmingly fast rate. He first surfaced in the international conscience for the Real Madrid Junior team in 2014-2015, averaging 12.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game in nine contests.
That was enough to convince Madrid’s leadership that Doncic was something special, and he was even rewarded with a five game call-up to the senior squad at the end of that season - at 15 years old. Last year he was a full-time member of the senior team, averaging 4.5 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game in 55 contests. To repeat, he was playing minutes for one of the top-5 clubs in Europe before he would be able to drive legally in the United States.
This year, Doncic looks ready to take on a significant role for Real. With Sergio Rodriguez headed to the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers, Real Madrid has a hole to fill in their backcourt. So far, they’ve looked to former Utah State guard Jaycee Carroll to slide into the starting lineup, but Doncic is getting the first backup minutes behind Llull as the primary ball-handler. And so far, he’s been outstanding, averaging 7.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 3.0 assists in the first two ACB contests this year, and shooting a perfect 5-5 from the field.
Doncic’s court vision and passing ability are phenomenal for a player his age. He excels at finding shooters coming off screens, a major staple of the Real Madrid offense, and he can create off the pick-and-roll, either scoring or distributing:
That passing ability allows Doncic to be a major threat when he has the ball in his hands. That he can find open shooters even across the court makes the defense hesitate a split second in sending help, which can open things up for Doncic to attack off the dribble. And if that opportunity arises, it’s a treat, because he’s one of the more skilled and fluid finishers you’ll see at his age.
Doncic’s finishing and passing would be enough to get excited about him, but he also brings a growing three-point shot as well. He hit 35.7 percent from three in 2014-2015, and that jumped up to 36.8 percent shooting last season. He has a good stroke and is continuing to get more comfortable shooting off the catch, though he’s predictably more comfortable shooting from range off the dribble. The biggest step he can take to continue his development will be learning to get more comfortable moving off the ball, as he struggles at this point to get into open spaces on the perimeter. If he can learn to create space off the ball, he’ll get more wide-open chances, and his three-point range can become a more serious weapon.
The well-rounded nature of Doncic’s offensive game is also the case on the defensive end. Doncic is for the most part engaged and consistent on the defensive end, and he has the athleticism and strength to defend on and off the ball. He is 17, so predictably he’s not going to be the most technically sound defender. But there’s plenty to get excited about physically, such as his leaping ability that allows him to block shots:
Or how he bodies up veteran Victor Claver in the post:
Doncic also uses his athleticism to rebound on the defensive end, where he’s posted higher than a 20 percent defensive rebound rate in each of his three seasons. And when you add that he’s still growing (He’s listed at 6’5” on Real Madrid’s website, which seems about two inches short), the idea that he can be an above-average NBA defender isn’t far-fetched at all.
Ultimately, the biggest draw to Doncic is that it’s hard to discern what he won’t be good at. He’s clearly going to be able to score and distribute from the shooting guard position, and potentially can do both at an elite level. He’s strong enough to be a very good rebounder as a guard, and he’s likely to be at least a passable outside shooter. Defensively, his athleticism should allow him to establish a baseline of being good, with the potential to get better as he learns more advanced concepts.
We have at least two more seasons of Doncic at Real Madrid, and they will certainly be enjoyable ones. At 17, Doncic has already progressed to the level of rotation player for one of Europe’s top club teams, and he should become a starter at some point over the next two years. The 2018 NBA Draft is a long way away, but right now, Doncic is positioned nicely to be the player that awaits whoever has 2018’s number one pick.