As EuroBasket nears its end, one name has stood out above all the rest.
No, it’s not one of the many established NBAers who’ve appeared at this year’s international tournament; players like Pau and Marc Gasol, Kristaps Porzingis, Dennis Schroder, Evan Fournier, Jonas Valanciunas or Goran Dragic (though the last name on that list has been phenomenal). Nor is it one of the handful of up-and-coming standouts like New York Knicks centre Willy Hernangomez, or incoming rookies Bogdan Bogdanovic (Sacramento), Cedi Osman (Cleveland) or Lauri Markkanen (Finland), all of whom have opened eyes with their play.
The name is Luka Doncic, and get ready to hear it often throughout this season and especially leading up to the 2018 NBA Draft. He’s the most-hyped international draft prospect since Ricky Rubio back in 2009, and arguably the highest-calibre since Yao Ming 15 years ago.
Doncic is a six-foot-eight, do-it-all guard starring for an undefeated Slovenia team that beat Spain in the semifinals on Thursday to punch their first-ever ticket to the EuroBasket finals.
At just 18 years old, his production at the highest level of international hoops (…save for the Olympics) is practically unprecedented. He’s leading Slovenia in minutes played—more than Dragic—and averaging more than 15 points and eight rebounds per game.
His tournament play got off to a ho-hum start scoring-wise, posting a combined total of 19 points on 6-for-22 shooting in Slovenia’s first two games—both wins—though he still managed to impact the game on the boards and was disruptive on defence.
In his third game against Greece, Doncic went off for 22 points, and in the five games since he’s reached double digits in plus/minus all but once.
What stands out most is how polished Doncic’s game is, and the number of ways in which he can leave his mark on the floor. Over the past year or so he’s been projected as an oversized point guard, due in part to his combination of court vision and an elite ability to maneuver past and around defenders while drawing double-teams in the process—but he’s shown that he can play at least three positions. Doncic lacks the real quickness and explosive first-step associated with most NBAers, and certainly those in the discussion for the first-overall spot, but his footwork is so advanced for his age that it’s likely to be a non-issue among scouts and GMs as they continue to hone in on him in preparation for the draft.
Like many European prospects, Doncic has been playing against grown men longer than he’s been eligible for a driver’s license.
As a pre-teen, he took home 10 MVP awards at tournaments between 2012-15. Then, in 2015 he started playing full-time for Real Madrid in the Spanish ACB league—considered perhaps the top league outside the NBA—and won back-to-back titles while playing meaningful minutes.
“He’s been unbelievable,” NBA and EuroLeague veteran Sergio Rodriguez said last season. “He’s very mature for his age, very talented. He’s the next big thing in basketball.”
And people of influence are noticing. One NBA executive said in a Bleacher Report feature published Thursday that Doncic is “leap years” ahead of anyone else in the 2018 draft class, what is expected to be another deep pool of high-end prospects that includes forwards Michael Porter Jr., recently re-classified Marvin Bagley III, and long-hyped centre prospect DeAndre Ayton. Doncic has been pegged as a top-five pick among that group, but for now seems to be emerging as a legitimate candidate to go first overall.
Doncic’s signature performance at EuroBasket thus far came in the quarter-finals versus Latvia, where he squared off against Porzingis and won the duel.
He followed up that performance with a less eye-popping but equally impressive showing against an experienced Spain team. Though he struggled with his shot, by half-time he was flirting with a triple-double and wound up with 11 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. Playing a whopping 36 minutes (remember, FIBA games are just 40 minutes), he led all players in plus/minus with plus-20. Slovenia won by exactly 20 points, 92-72.
In a vacuum these are the types of performances that turn heads among scouts and NBA decision-makers. That it’s coming against some of the top professional-calibre competition on Earth, in a high-stakes elimination environment like the EuroBasket knockout stage, is enough to put the teenage phenom at the top of early draft boards.
Slovenia plays in the EuroBasket finals on Saturday against the winner of Russia versus Serbia, who play Friday afternoon.