Wednesday, October 28, 2020

But Who is Luka Doncic, Really?

Whenever anyone would ask me what I thought of Luka Dončić, the only thing I could say was, “I don’t trust international players.” I hadn’t watched him play and I had no plans to. International prospects are a tricky scouting job. Even the seemingly perfect prospects are busts in many cases. Then a friend said he would love to hear my thoughts on Luka Dončić, motivating me to write this article.

For those who are not familiar with Dončić, he’s a 6’8” 225 lbs combo guard from Europe. Oh yeah, and he’s really good. He is one of the most debated prospects in this year’s draft, as international prospects usually are. Amazingly only 19 years old, he’s been touted by some as, “the best European prospect ever.” However, I was skeptical.


Luka Doncic

I took it upon myself to watch a game of Luka Dončić’s. September 3rd, 2017, Dončić, and Slovenia went up against Greece in a FIBA EuroBasket game. Much to my surprise, Dončić impressed me very much. Not his 22 points on 7-12 shooting, but the polish and maturity for someone who’s only 19. However, it wasn’t all positive for Dončić, there were certain things that made me question how good Dončić can really be.

Dončić is extremely talented, there’s no debating that. He displays a lot of NBA-esque moves. Layups, mid-range, three-pointers are all a part of a complete and polished game. Let’s take a look at a few of his plays from the Slovenia vs Greece game.

Luka Dončić has a great feel for the game. He receives the ball on a simple handoff, then you see Dončić patiently let the pick and roll set up. He then attacks the defender, showing a very pro move with a slight hesitation when going around the pick. He pauses long enough to feel the defender behind him. He then takes a few dribbles and sees the help defender playing too far off him. Dončić then displays his excellent mid-range game with a pull up jumper and subsequently knocks it down.

Now take a look at this great three pointer for Dončić. Dončić makes a sweet “fake one step down-cut” on the fake handoff, forcing the defender to give up a good five feet of space, then receives the ball. Dončić then sees the defender still playing a few feet off him, so he takes a quick dribble and pulls up at least four feet behind the three point line. Quite a beautiful stroke Dončić has behind the arc.

Luka Doncic could be special

Also important to note on this play is how far the defender plays off Luka Dončić. This is not because Dončić cannot shoot, not at all, but because the defender is scared of Dončić’s strong ability to drive to the basket.

Dončić once again displays his great feel and understanding of the game. As soon as he receives the pass, he fakes a strong pass to his teammate in the corner. He then makes an even smarter decision. With the defense off balance, he puts his head down and takes it straight to the rim. Dončić shows off his craftiness with the great floater a few feet from the basket, a great decision considering the Greece defender was right there to reject the shot.

In case you were curious, #14 on Greece was Georgios Papagiannis (yeah that one).

So Dončić is a good scorer, what makes him such a great prospect? I’m glad you asked.

Luka Dončić showcases his excellent ball handling ability. The between-the-legs, the behind-the-back, then he swiftly splits through the double team, making it look all too easy. Dončić then takes the ball straight to the rack for the easy basket.

Dončić is more than just a pure scorer who can create his own shot, he is a great passer as well.

There’s more than one thing that impresses me in this play. Dončić once again shows his prowess in the pick and roll game. The defender sees the pick coming from #14 on Slovenia and decides to defend the right side harder. Luka Dončić drives hard to the left forcing the double team by #14 on Greece, Dončić then steps back and pauses for ½ a second. Then #7 on Slovenia sets up for another pick for Dončić, while #14 on Slovenia cuts to the basket. This forces #15 on Greece to pick him up. Dončić sees all this happen and decides to take a dribble toward the basket, then makes a great pass cross court to a teammate for a wide open three.

Luka Dončić averaged a healthy 4.7 assists per game in only 24.7 minutes per game. I saw Dončić make great passes to his teammates all throughout the game. Here’s another one that impressed me.

Dončić shows great patience on this play. Using his 6’8” body to shield the ball, he makes a great half post spin and drives hard to the basket. Dončić dusts his defender on the play, forcing Greece to double him. Dončić sees this and makes a perfectly placed pass to his teammate for a wide open layup.

Dončić has a very high basketball IQ, he makes great decisions. Dončić brings the ball up the court, very much under control and patient versus the press defense. He then runs the pick and pop, getting a clean switch onto an opposing big man. Dončić takes a few dribbles, then takes a few steps back and resets the play. His big man #0 is begging for the ball in the post, a mismatch #0 would exploit. Dončić sees three Greece help defenders closing in on the post and makes a high IQ decision not to force the ball inside. He then drives the ball strong to the rim and gets fouled. Dončić shows off his creativity on this play, the pump fake, the step through, the head fake. Dončić shoots 80.2% at the free throw line on a very healthy 4.9 FTA per game, both excellent rates.

In this sequence, you can see how well Dončić moves without the ball. After making a pass to an open teammate in the corner, that teammate passes to another teammate on the top of the key. Dončić then sees an open opportunity and runs hard to the three point line. Dončić catches the ball in stride and once again showcases his wonderful stroke from three, knocking down the shot with a hand in his face.

Once again you can see Dončić’s high IQ on display. After making a pass to his teammate #7, Dončić steps up near the three point line setting a subtle, but effective pick for his teammate #0. #0 uses this pick and cuts to the basket, and receives the pass from #7 for a wide open layup. This play was produced by Dončić’s high IQ off-ball pick.

Luka Dončić has excellent straight-line speed. In this play you see Dončić running down the court full speed in transition, faster than anyone on his team. Goran Dragić (yes that one) can’t find the angle to hit Dončić in transition, but if someone can run with Dragić, one of the fastest players in the league, you can bet they’re fast.

Dončić has amazing defensive IQ, excellent at help defense and switching. His defensive responsibility on this play is #19 in the corner. #17 on Slovenia seems to lose his assignment, leaving his man. As a result, #17 for Greece is wide open for a three on the top of the key. The ball handler for Greece sees his wide open teammate, takes one dribble and passes it. Meanwhile, Dončić knows exactly where the pass is going, rushes to cover the open shooter (despite it not being his man), forcing him to make a pass. I watched Dončić make plays exactly like this all game, showing a great propensity for help defense and ability to switch.

While Dončić’s defensive IQ is elite, his 1 on 1 defense is awful…to be frank. Dončić’s lateral quickness is a major weak point. It seemed like every play Dončić was getting torched on dribble drives by the Greece players.

Here you can see exactly what I’m talking about. Dončić runs to the three to pick up his man and the Greece player simply drives right past Dončić. The silver lining in this play is that Dončić had the IQ to immediately make a switch onto #14 of Greece, while his teammate made a timely switch on to Dončić’s man and forces a travel. Despite that, I watched Dončić get beat on almost every play, never being able to keep his man in front of him.

Dončić has another serious flaw on defense. He has this tendency to worry more about the pass more than the drive to the basket. As you can see on this 2 on 1 opportunity, with Dončić as the only defender, Dončić takes a terrible angle on the ball handler, making a feeble attempt to steal the ball while using his body to shield the pass attempt. The Greece player sees this and takes the ball straight to the rim for the easy basket. Dončić seemed to do this all game, not worrying about the ball handler as much as the pass, leading to easy baskets for Greece.

As you may have noticed in the earlier videos, Dončić had a bad habit of making “jump passes.” As a basketball player, you’re always taught to never make jump passes. Dončić made these passes all game long. Against the weaker competition he plays against, this usually works. This is one of the times it did not work.

You can see Dončić show off his wonderful array of moves, the half spin leading to the strong drive into the teeth of the defense. Dončić draws the double team, the result he wanted, he then jumps in the air and attempts to deliver a bounce pass to a cutting teammate. The pass gets stolen by the Greek defenders, forcing Slovenia to scramble in transition defense. I bet you if Dončić stopped and patiently made the bounce pass, it would have gotten through cleanly.

For someone who’s 6”8” 225lbs, you would expect better rebounding. Dončić shows a serious lack of technique and effort on this play, something I saw far too often throughout the game. Dončić stands by and watches the ball instead of using his body to box out the Greek player. Although Dončić averages a very solid 5.2 RPG, I saw a player who displayed a serious lack of effort on rebounds.

The most concerning part of Dončić’s offensive game for me is his lack of elite finishing ability. Far too often Dončić opted for floaters and fadeaways instead of going strong to the basket. In the above play, you can see Dončić make it all the way to the basket before putting up a weak layup attempt, as a result, he cannot convert. You have to wonder how well Dončić will fare against the contact in the NBA, a much taller task.

Dončić is an intriguing prospect with immense upside. He has fantastic upper body strength, as well as lower body strength. Much like most European players, he does not use his body to its full potential. Dončić is a legit 6’8″ 225lbs but uses his ball handling and speed to create shots, rather than his imposing size. While using his skillset is more than enough to produce, the ceiling will be many miles higher if Dončić learns to use his size.

Dončić ended the season with only 31.0% on 4.8 3PA, a significantly lower mark than his 39.7% the year before. Dončić did shoot a full 1.9 3PA more than the year before, so a drop off is expected. The percentage does not concern me however, Dončić’s three point stroke is fluid and his range is fantastic.

Dončić had only 2.2 TOV, an excellent rate for a player with such high usage. Dončić has a great feel for the game and is a great decision maker, rarely forcing the ball into bad spots. The only thing that concerns me with turnovers in the NBA, is his jump pass. While it may not seem like a big deal since it works now, the defenders in the NBA will be better, longer, and smarter. It will not be so easy to simply jump and throw the ball over their heads.

The only thing keeping Dončić afloat on defense is his ridiculously high IQ. He will need to improve his lateral quickness dramatically to be able to keep up with the players in the NBA. In an iso driven league, NBA coaches will notice Dončić’s struggles on defense and put him on an island every play. While Dončić’s defense would thrive in teams that play excellent help defense and switch very well, like the Lakers, Celtics, and Warriors. Unfortunately, most defenses don’t play that style.

Dončić has fantastic size, something that has scouts drooling. The 6’8” 225 lbs frame is almost unprecedented for someone playing the PG/SG position. Dončić still needs to learn how to use his size better to really unlock his full potential.

All in all, Dončić has all the tools to develop into an NBA superstar. He has elite size, IQ, and athleticism, things you cannot teach. At 19 years old, his game is very polished and mature, with a full repertoire of moves and shots in his arsenal. For all his strengths with the ball in his hands, Dončić is equally skilled at moving without the ball, running off screens for jump shots or cutting to the basket for easy layups. He is a solid passer and an even better decision maker.

The one weakness that is truly concerning to me is his defense. Despite his incredibly high IQ, NBA teams will simply go 1 on 1 with Dončić. His lack of defense may limit his minutes at the pro level. Dončić’s lateral quickness will need to be improved before the start of the NBA season.

I have to admit, after watching Dončić, I am a fan. I saw a player who is ready to go the NBA. I do expect him to struggle his rookie year, facing significantly tougher defense and going up against more physical players. It will be a change of pace for Dončić. I do not believe Dončić should stay in Europe another year, however, his skillset is more than enough for the NBA as of right now.

What he will gain in the NBA is a new environment to learn how he can adjust his game to find success. I can see Dončić ranging anywhere from 6 Man of The Year to All-NBA 1st Team, but the floor is high with Dončić. Whoever drafts Dončić will be very happy. While I still believe DeAndre Ayton should still be the no. 1 overall pick in this years draft, I would not be surprised to see Luka Dončić going no. 1 to the Phoenix Suns.

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