Why Luka Doncic might be the safest pick in the NBA draft

Luka Doncic envisions his potential first moments in the NBA, driving down the lane and dunking over an NBA icon. Doncic is a 6-foot-8 playmaking prodigy out of Slovenia, perhaps the most decorated European-to-NBA prospect whose favorite player is LeBron James. He’s four days from becoming one of the top picks in the 2018 NBA draft and will soon be able to turn his dreams into an American reality.

“If I dunk on LeBron, I can retire,” Doncic told Yahoo Sports by phone, laughing.

“I’m kidding, but no, no, of course I want to bring my personality to the States.”

Doncic has dazzled with his scoring and passing, with a bravado that made him the EuroLeague MVP and EuroLeague Final Four MVP. He has positioned himself to be a top draft selection, and the Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks have each traveled to Europe late in Doncic’s season to meet him, league sources said.

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Doncic carried himself with confidence since joining Real Madrid’s junior team in 2012, then joined the powerhouse EuroLeague club in 2014. He has played high-level organized basketball since he was 8. For some teams in the lottery, questions, albeit faint, remain about Doncic’s ability to adapt to the NBA’s athleticism and pace, but his pedigree suggests he will translate. He has the frame to play point guard through small forward — and maybe even power forward at times. In a draft dominated by big men, Doncic has the potential to be the best playmaker who can elevate the play of his teammates.

To that end, Doncic, 19, is adamant about which position he desires to play in the NBA.

“Honestly, I really prefer to play point guard, to have the ball in my hands and play for other people,” Doncic told Yahoo Sports. “Playing from the one to the four, that’s the strength that I have over everyone. I want to play for my teammates and make them better. I really prefer to have the ball in my hands, and play for everybody else. I will do anything for my team. I’m happy when I can play point. It’s easier for me. I can fight more in the post and create for my teammates.

“From the beginning when I came to Real Madrid, I saw that I loved to create for others. I like to play pick-and-roll with the ball and pass from everywhere. From the beginning, I wanted to be the point guard.”

Luka Doncic is the EuroLeague MVP and EuroLeague Final Four MVP. (Getty)
Luka Doncic is the EuroLeague MVP and EuroLeague Final Four MVP. (Getty)

His leadership permeates off the floor, too, and Doncic has relished the team meals and practices during his time with Real Madrid. Doncic has the potential to reset a team’s culture after his accomplished professional career and isn’t hampered by the questions that often surround typical Euro prospects.

“That’s an advantage for me over everyone,” Doncic told Yahoo Sports. “To play in the Euroleague, they have a lot of ex-NBA players and I have gained a lot of experience. Especially after this year, I had a good season. I’ll be able to adjust because in the NBA, it’s not easier to score … but it’s different. In Europe, for example, the difference can be the three-second rule and there’s only so much spacing. In the NBA, there’s more physicality, more spacing, and that is my advantage, too.

“When I go on the court, I enjoy it. I’m a team player and I like to be with my guys. When we go to dinner, we go whole team — I like that. My mom [Mirjam Poterbin] has been an important part of my life, my grandmother and everybody in my family. I know I have a great family and friends, and they will always help me on this new journey. I’ll enjoy challenging myself in the NBA.”

Phoenix is expected to select Arizona’s Deandre Ayton at No. 1. Sacramento has long been intrigued by Doncic, but has De’Aaron Fox as its point guard of the future, and league sources said the Kings have targeted a perimeter big throughout the pre-draft process, bringing in Duke’s Marvin Bagley III for a workout. Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. had an MRI on his hip return clean this past week, and his placement in the draft’s top 10 will be a significant factor Thursday.

For Sacramento, Atlanta, Memphis and Dallas, Doncic remains a target, and he hopes to be selected in the top five. He’s currently playing in the ACB league finals, which could extend to a final game on Friday and make it difficult for a trip to New York for draft night. Doncic went for 20 points, nine rebounds and three assists in leading Real Madrid to a 2-1 series lead, which means the club could clinch the title Tuesday night.

“Pick one to five, it will be amazing to be selected there, especially for a European guy,” Doncic told Yahoo Sports. “I need to show it on the court, because I need to prove it. I can see who made a mistake not drafting me. After my rookie season, I will see who made a mistake. I’m motivated to enter the draft. I’m excited to play in the NBA and play against these stars.

“It will be the biggest challenge for me, staying there a long time.”

NBA executives believe Doncic translates as a point guard or point forward on offense, and they believe the transition for him must come on the other end as a multi-position defender. They’ve sifted through possible comparisons for Doncic, and for perhaps his best one executives don’t need to ask anyone other than Doncic’s agent, Bill Duffy. Beyond representing several foreign stars such as Yao Ming, Duffy also represented two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash and believes in the similarities between Nash and the much taller, bigger Doncic: vision, pick-and-roll playmaking and 3-point shooting.

“This guy is the revisitation of Steve Nash,” Duffy said. “The talent, the work ethic, the team mindset, you would hate to be the one to pass on Luka. He has played in a physical setting for years and has dismantled NBA guys. He has a DNA to him and checks all of the boxes.”

“I think Luka is a dream prospect,” Nash told Yahoo Sports. “Big and mobile enough in the modern game and can guard multiple positions. He has a skillset, a winning mentality and leadership qualities.”

Ask Doncic of the comparisons to Nash, and you can hear the excitement in his voice.

“I see that from myself, to be like Steve Nash,” Doncic told Yahoo Sports. “But man, to be like Steve Nash I need to work so much. I like to see my teammates play better. I like to elevate them, and I know Steve Nash did that. It’s different to compare me to an NBA player like him because that is such a great, great level.

“My favorite player is LeBron. He’s just amazing — he can play from one through four, maybe even the five.”

Doncic paused for a moment.

“I wouldn’t mind LeBron as my comparison, actually,” he said with a laugh.

Luka Doncic’s rookie moment against James and others is coming soon, and he’ll leave behind the quickest rise to stardom in European basketball history. Doncic is pushing for the teams at the top of the draft, and for once, this Euro could be the safest pick of them all.

“For me, this has all happened so quick,” Doncic told Yahoo Sports. “For one second, I’m playing for the first team of Real Madrid, with players 15 years older than me. And now I’m making this jump.”

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