The 5: Luka Doncic has mostly pluggable holes in his game
An argument can be made that Luka Doncic is the safer NBA Draft prospect at No. 1 in terms of his floor.
While Deandre Ayton’s floor is arguably as high due to his remarkable athleticism and build, Doncic has less glaring holes in his game. Ayton, one can hope, patches his defensive issues with film work and commitment.
Doncic, on the other hand, doesn’t have an issue as glaring, but he does have holes that could be less easily fixed.
It begins with his lack of elite athleticism, which has been characterized by some as flat-out poor and others as just average.
Like Ayton, Doncic’s flaws came out most in the context of his team, Real Madrid, which used the point-forward as a true point guard (he’s not that).
Nonetheless, Doncic won the EuroLeague MVP honor as a 19-year-old and through a title game win has averaged 14.5 points, 4.7 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 1.1 steal and just 2.2 turnovers in 24.9 minutes per game in EuroLeague and Liga ACB play.
Kellan Olson already gave an overview of Doncic, but here is a finer look at what could impede the Slovenian’s ascent in the NBA with a few thoughts on why those limitations could be hidden by the right fit on a roster and the right scheme around him.
First step explosiveness
Take any scouting report blasting Doncic’s lack of athleticism with a grain of salt. It’s a broad statement that in some sense can be simply untrue.
Doncic isn’t slow at 6-foot-8 and 228 pounds, nor is he frail. He does, however, lack an explosive first step, and that lends concerns toward his scoring and playmaking abilities at the NBA level.
Below, his strong handles aren’t enough to get by a bigger, slower defender.
Doncic can still find more ways to beat switches efficiently. A lot of dancing on the perimeter. pic.twitter.com/yjvYIPOCsQ
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) May 20, 2018
He struggled to make an impact against athletic defenders and elite team defenses. During one EuroLeague playoff series against Panathinaikos this year, he struggled mightily.
James Gist, Thanasis Antetokounmpo (brother of Giannis) and Adreian Payne trapped and wreaked havoc on Doncic over a four-game series that Real Madrid won. Doncic shot 5-for-20 combined in the first three games before breaking it open for a 17-point outing in the series-clinching win.
No matter how good Doncic’s handles are, many of his possessions ended with him taking contested shots or picking up his dribble against aggressive traps.
Adding to the lack of acceleration is Doncic’s size and high center of gravity. He tends to hunch over rather than gain explosion from a more compact triple-threat position, putting his head down on paint attacks as he’s likely aware that smaller, quicker defenders can rip his handle. Sometimes that posture leads to poor vision when defenders collapse.
That said, with enough of a runway — which is why he thrived in transition — Doncic can get up to speed and blow by mismatched defenders such as former NBA first-round draft pick Payne.
Luka Doncic blows by Adreian Payne in the halfcourt and follows that up by dunking all over Panathinaikos.
Athleticism concerns with Luka are a bit overblown.pic.twitter.com/CPbI0C2eRJ
— Frank Urbina (@FrankUrbina_) April 25, 2018
Once he gets going, he’s dangerous. Getting a hip by a defender is all Doncic needs, and his hops aren’t too shabby on dunks like you can see above or when he’s providing help-side rim protection.
Remember, Devin Booker wasn’t viewed as an athletic marvel coming out of college either, but he’s since developed ways to get by defenders by understanding angles, learning how to trick and nudge defenders off balance and by utilizing an advanced handle.
Doncic has the potential to develop the same way.
Doncic’s athletic question-marks on defense start with his lateral quickness.
When Doncic is locked in, he’s quite savvy. He bumps players moving off the ball off track and is aggressive with denials if he sees a play running toward his opponent. Like the Suns’ Jared Dudley, he’s conscious of using sharper angles to drop back as he moves laterally to make up for his lack of pop when defending drives.
Teams will likely test the youngster once he enters the NBA by running him off screens — his big body gets caught on them and that leaves him at risk while attempting to recover against explosive NBA wings if he does get through.
A good 20-second representation of how things are going for Doncic against Panathinaikos in this series so far. pic.twitter.com/dnApT9ib1s
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) April 19, 2018
Doncic will probably never be an above-average defender, but his IQ should allow him to make up for some of his lack of pop.
Doncic doesn’t take many plays off on the defensive end, especially when it counts, and that’s impressive enough for a player tasked with carrying much of Real Madrid’s scoring and playmaking loads this season.
However, he does have a tendency to overhelp, ballwatch and risk-take. Those things put him in position to either get burned when his man sneaks behind him or beat Doncic off the bounce if he’s caught recovering.
Here’s where the context to Doncic’s pro career comes into play.
Over the past three years, his per-36 scoring numbers have improved from 12.1, to 14.1, to 21 points per game. As his role has grown from reserve to EuroLeague MVP, Doncic’s efficiency has taken a hit as he’s been tasked with shooting more and initiating offense as defenses have geared their scouting reports toward stopping him.
Doncic’s shot attempts per 36 minutes have nearly doubled from 7.8 to 14.3 in that span, and while his overall shooting percentage has remained solid — he shot 50 percent in 2015-16 and 46 percent his past year — his three-point accuracy has tumbled.
Doncic hit 40 percent as a reserve three years ago but shot 35 percent last year and 31 percent this year.
Much of his offense comes off the bounce, and some draft analysts have argued he’s more comfortable shooting off the dribble. That’s a concern when looking at his drooping average this season.
Does he rely on stepbacks? Does Doncic want to play on an NBA team where he will find himself shooting open catch-and-shoot jumpers? Those questions have yet to be answered.
Would like to see more activity from Doncic after he gives the ball up. A lot of standing off the ball. Will have to learn how to play off of it at times in the NBA. pic.twitter.com/15LFYBWRxU
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) May 20, 2018
His form, however, resembles that of a 40-percent standstill three-point shooter.
To get open, Doncic could be the Kyrie Irving of ball-handlers at small forward, but unlike against Irving, can opponents recover on him when even when Doncic dips his shoulder and crosses them over?
When it comes to the Suns, especially, Doncic might seem like an ill-fitting piece with wings like Booker, Josh Jackson and T.J. Warren already in place.
All but Jackson figure to be average to below-average defenders at their peak — and Jackson still has a long way to go before he’s average himself. Even if three of those players can fit on the court at the same time, one will end up the odd man out.
Then, who plays point guard? And how do they all manage doling out touches?
Those concerns are warranted and fair. Let’s start with what we know.
We know none of them will be able to defend point guards, and that makes a free agent or trade addition necessary (the Avery Bradley interest makes sense, and he’s a top-notch defender at point guard and solid shooter who won’t need to initiate offense). Doncic is good enough to defend stand-still shooters at shooting guard to small-ball power forwards.
Making the assumptions the Suns keep all of their wings, look no further than the Boston Celtics as an example of how to utilize a deep group of wings.
Offensively, the Doncic fit is just fine.
Three of the four teams in the NBA conference finals — the Cavaliers (LeBron James), Celtics (Al Horford) and Warriors (Draymond Green) — use players at power forward or center to initiate their offenses. The point guard position is changing before our eyes.
Surely, first-year Suns coach Igor Kokoskov will deploy an offense that moves the ball and allows a group of wing players to attack off the catch rather than pounding it into the ground. Need a pick-and-roll offense early in the clock? Doncic can manipulate the defense to get it in trouble.
Need a late score? Give the ball to Booker.
In short, it will require creativity to manage Doncic on any roster: He’s probably not going to be a true over-sized point guard like Ben Simmons for the Philadelphia 76ers. But does he need to be?
From a satellite view of Doncic, the Slovenian’s emotional issues could be a concern. Does it change much?
Well, he’s 19 years old. And from the Suns’ perspective, no coach knows how to manage him better than Kokoskov.
Feature stories about Doncic include anecdotes of his love for fast cars and the limelight (Los Angeles in particular).
He’s brash for a guy who hasn’t been a European star for long — even before this season he was playing fewer than 20 minutes per game for Real Madrid.
How will he adjust to the NBA?
One blatant show of immaturity or hot-headedness came this season, when he lost his head in a EuroLeague game, got ejected and continued to lose his temper after the fact.
In a scouting report filed to 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s John Gambadoro, one talent evaluator cited immaturity, entitlement and issues with teammates.
To answer how big of an issue that is, the evaluator also said that Doncic should “absolutely be in consideration for the No. 1 pick.”