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Luka Doncic is 2018’s top NBA prospect and could help shape Suns’ identity

Slovenia's Luka Doncic, center, celebrates with teammates during their Eurobasket European Basketball Championship quarter final match against Latvia, in Istanbul, Tuesday, Sept. 12. 2017. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
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How would you build a basketball team from scratch? What are the key attributes you are looking for from the players? Shooting? Size? Athleticism? Scoring? Defense?

The theme, time and time again as you look back on the differences between great teams and all-time great teams, has been unselfishness.

The Golden State Warriors are currently one of those teams, and in assimilating one of the most talented rosters in the history of the league, sacrifice has been the key.

Do you remember the time between Kevin Durant deciding to go to the Bay and his first game?

Durant would take shots away from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, critics suggested. They will take away shots from him. How does that work for someone known first for his shot-creation abilities?

How it worked was all three coming together to recognize what was needed to become the league’s next great dynasty. In no surprise, Durant fit in perfectly with the Warriors’ ball movement and took fewer shots, all while leaping a few steps forward by becoming one of the league’s best overall defensive players.

Players that are able to adapt like that while maintaining an aggressive mentality as scorers are the key element of greatness in an NBA player.

Suns fans, in fact, have seen this with Devin Booker. The “well, all he can do is score and he’s not efficient” trope surrounding Booker has died a quick and painless death as he continuously got his teammates involved in his third season — despite the fact that Booker taking 25-30 shots a game was probably the best option.

The qualities that bring that greatness shine through in a 19-year-old playing at a level overseas like no one at his age has ever come close to doing before.

Luka Doncic, in just 24.6 minutes per game, is averaging 15.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists over 46 games for Real Madrid between the EuroLeague and Liga ACB, the two top leagues in the world outside of the NBA. He won the EuroLeague Rising Star Award when he was 17, an award for up-and-coming players that are 22 or younger.

Buzz was building over the summer for some of the most physically gifted high school commits the draft process has seen like Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III and Mohamed Bamba. While that was going on, Doncic’s basketball campaign had already started.

He shined at FIBA’s EuroBasket for Slovenia against a whole slew of NBA-caliber and NBA players, unexpectedly winning the whole tournament alongside Goran Dragic and locking himself in as a top-five selection in the draft.

Doncic is the crown jewel of a terrific 2018 NBA Draft class, and he checks all the boxes for what Booker needs out of his partner in crime offensively to start doing what Booker wants to do the most: Win.

One thing I want to establish from the jump here is that Doncic is not your prototypical European. This guy is an absolute killer scoring the ball. Check out this game-winner from Friday night.

Crossovers, step-backs and hesitation dribbles are all in his arsenal. He has the combination of footwork and confidence to hit jumpers off the dribble with ease in a seemingly limitless variety of ways.

His 6-foot-7, 220-pound frame is a notable aspect of his projection. He’s well-developed for his age and is very good at finishing with contact to draw fouls while also using strong touch for floaters and more shots farther out. If we factor in Doncic’s off-the-charts feel and craft as a ball-handler, he’s absolutely a three-level scorer.

I cannot emphasize the importance of Doncic’s scoring approach enough because it sets up his passing, the best part of his game.

We think about passing in terms of skill, but where it really becomes a next-level attribute is when players can see the floor, read defenses, force them to move certain ways and set up teammates because they are a full 2-3 seconds ahead.

Against Spain, watch Doncic’s mannerisms with the ball, his eyes and where Spain’s help defense on the weak-side corner keeps going.

He’s looking away from the shooter like he’s Drew Brees looking off a safety. He’s 19!

His passing also goes even beyond that.

Doncic has outstanding instincts that make it simple for him to readjust and throw different types of passes depending on the situation. Below, he’s going from an overhead pass to a bounce pass, patiently waiting for post position to open up for a bullet pass and then throwing a slow, floating pass over the defense off a scramble to an open shooter on the other side of the floor.

Go back to those two Spain clips again and notice how one pass is rapid and the other one he takes his time with. That’s floor sense you cannot come close to teaching.

This is the type of understanding Doncic has as a primary initiator of an offense, so if we take that to go with his lethal bucket-getting, you’ve got a mouthwatering foundation for an offensive player.

Once Doncic gets a step or two going forward, he has a combination of speed and strength that’s really tough to stop when you factor in his deception with the ball.

If we come together and use basic addition here, we’ve got a leviathan in transition.

His offensive versatility draws back concerns of his lack of top-tier athleticism and inability to separate from defenders. To use one of the best foreign NBA players of all time as an example, look at what Manu Ginobili did for years with his craftiness and manipulation of defenses while having the body to take hits and finish at the rim. To be fair, that’s an all-time great example and Doncic will have to be smart and adapt. If you can’t tell, I’m betting on him to do that.

Here, he has the time to set up and explode, but that nothing inspiring follows because he can’t jump off two feet is troubling.

On defense, this is seen as a stretch by some, but I see Doncic as solid. Unlike some offensive-minded players, his reading of the floor extends to defense, where effort and savvy get him a long way to make up for his lack of athleticism.

The steal above comes as Doncic works hard to cling to his man, reads the switch right away and never loses track of where the ball or the passing lane is in the process.

The block is all about the quick hop to the side to get in front of the man under the basket it. Without it, that’s an aggressive block attempt that’s probably a foul. With it and reading the lefty finish, it’s a huge play.

What makes Doncic good on defense might sound familiar, and that’s because it was the same argument used to defend Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball. It’s only one example, but Ball is having the ever-rare “good defensive player in his rookie season” year for the Lakers despite having the same missing ingredient as Doncic: foot speed.

Where we can get concerned is Doncic’s scoring negatively affecting an offense. He gets in love with isolation ball a bit too much and isn’t a great enough shooter to bail himself out of situations consistently enough.

That reflects in his shooting percentages of 46.4 percent overall (10.3 attempts per game) and 30.6 percent from three-point range (4.6 attempts per game). As a primary ball-handler in Spain he’s in need of better looks.

He is a solid shooter, though, possessing sound form in all the different situations, whether it’s off the catch, off the dribble or running off screens and having to twist his body quickly.

Despite how naturally his skills will fit on any roster, Doncic is not a point guard in the same vein as the Sixers’ Ben Simmons, and that makes his slotting into a roster a bit more clunky than you’d expect. He’s best used as more of a “point forward” and sharing the responsibilities with either a point guard or another perimeter player who can be an initiator of the offense. Luckily for the Suns, Booker can help there and Josh Jackson can too, in time.

Could Booker and Jackson handle the defensive duties of guards while Doncic covers small forwards? It’s a legitimate question that you can’t answer right now, and Phoenix might be better off finding a more supplementary point guard to shoot threes and play defense while running the occasional action to play alongside Booker and Doncic.

Please fight the urge to hurl projectiles at me, but wouldn’t this kind of be the right way to use Brandon Knight if he could get back to being a decent defender?

Doncic needs to be off the ball more, and this is where you look at a fit next to Booker and salivate.

When a possession starts to die, Booker is far more adept at scoring efficiently in those scenarios, but both can create dilemmas for offenses when the other is off the ball. They are three-level scorers, good shooters, passers and readers of the floor.

Add in the all-around “hey, he’s a pretty good passer!” skills for the likes of Jackson, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and so on, and you’ve got some real ball movement potential. Doncic also plays with a juiced up energy with the same swagger overflowing in Booker and Jackson. Those two specifically would love playing with Doncic.

Let’s look at this schematically in three different situations.

Say Doncic is doing his usual sorcery act in the pick-and-roll and wins the initial encounter, forcing the defense to help. That defense must choose whether to help slightly off Booker or let Doncic create a good look like he usually does in ball-screen actions. Also, Booker doesn’t have to be solely responsible for reliable offensive creation and can get some much-needed additional energy from someone else handling the role.

Flip it the other way, and now when teams are hedging hard on Booker like they always do: You can have Doncic be the screen-setter in that situation. So, now you’ve got Doncic playing the Draymond Green role, making the correct decision 99 times out of 100 in a 4-on-3 or 4-on-4 (more space!) when Booker dumps it to him.

Last but not least, try not to completely lose your mind when I say that Doncic could actually set up Booker and put him in better positions to score. That is much-needed after what we’ve seen Booker battle through this year against opposing defenses.

This is where we get back to our core discussion.

Booker, despite a talent-lacking roster, hasn’t been absolutely dominating possession of the ball like he could. His assist numbers are up and he’s quickly improving as a playmaker.

Now, imagine more of those Doncic-Booker offensive possibilities. Once again, it will have to come through unselfishness and ball movement.

Both of them look like players who can champion that purpose, serving as the cornerstones of what the team will build its basketball philosophy around in the pursuit of playoff basketball and more.

That’s the magnitude of drafting someone like Doncic, and that’s what makes him the best prospect in this class.

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