About an hour before the NBA Draft got underway back in June, days’ worth of discussions between the Mavericks and Hawks about swapping draft picks so that Dallas could select Slovenian youngster Luka Doncic with the third pick looked fruitless. The deal had fallen apart, the rumor mill ground to a halt and Dallas general manager Donnie Nelson would be unable to leap ahead of Memphis — picking fourth — to ensure that Doncic would be the cornerstone of the franchise reboot the team was imagining.
Doncic’s agent, Bill Duffy of BDA Sports, had some advice in his conversations with the Mavs: Keep trying. Doncic would have been open to any NBA team that drafted him, but Dallas was his top choice. Atlanta, it was known, had focused its attention on guard Trae Young, and could afford to slide down to choose him. So Duffy urged the Mavericks to, as he put it, "chip away" at the Hawks.
"And they did, and they got it done, and everyone got what they wanted," Duffy said.
It will cost the Mavericks next year’s first-round pick, protected for the top five, but with Dallas now looking to make a postseason push behind its rookie phenom, the pick is a small price.
We’re still in the very, very early stages of evaluating last year’s draft prospects, but already, Doncic’s performance has raised questions as to why every other team in the league — especially Phoenix, Sacramento and Atlanta, the teams that passed on their chance to pick him — didn’t share Dallas’ determination to bring Doncic aboard.
Certainly, the Mavericks have gotten what they wanted, and while some are surprised to see the ease with which Doncic has made his rookie transition to the NBA, don’t count Nelson and the Dallas brass among them.
Doncic is averaging 19.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists for the Mavs. He leads all rookies in minutes and points, ranks second in rebounds and assists and is first in 3-pointers and free throws made. In his first third of a season, he has seized the franchise-player mantle — just as the team’s execs were sure he would. That's why he's one of SN's Faces of 2019.
"The one thing I have consistently said about him, based on the film, is that the European film didn’t show the strength, the size and the quickness that we’ve seen here," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle told reporters last week. "He’s caught some people by surprise, but I’m not surprised at all.
"Donnie Nelson, who I think is as good an evaluator of talent as I’ve come across in this league, told me over a year ago that he thought he was going to be the best player in this draft."
Credit the Mavericks for the foresight but, fact is, NBA folks have been enthralled with the possibilities of Doncic’s skill set — especially as he’s grown to 6-8 — for the better part of four years. To see teams pull back from choosing Doncic in the run-up to the draft was a bit strange.
Doncic has been groomed for this moment. The son of a longtime Slovenian star player and coach, Doncic was a natural from a young age. He moved from home at age 13, and signed a five-year contract with Real Madrid, the Spanish powerhouse that has fed stars to the NBA going back to Arvydas Sabonis and Drazen Petrovic, on through Nikola Mirotic and Rudy Fernandez.
In Spain, Doncic blossomed, building an impressive resume and a legion of admirers in NBA front offices. He was the MVP of Spain’s under-16 league when he was only 14. He was 16 when he was named All-League in Spain’s under-18 group, and that year became the youngest player to take the floor for Real Madrid’s primary team. In 2015, he was the Adidas Next Generation Tournament’s MVP — and his status as a burgeoning star was firmed up.
All the while, European scouts kept feeding back glowing reports about what Doncic might do in the NBA, where freedom-of-movement rules prevent players from making contact with ball handlers on the perimeter. That was not the case in Doncic’s European games, and anyone who watched closely could see that Doncic would thrive under the NBA’s no-touch rules.
Still, he starred for Real Madrid last year, leading the team to the Euroleague championship and winning tournament MVP. He then pushed Real Madrid to the Spanish League championship, which wrapped up just ahead of the draft and kept him from working out with teams.
But what he was doing in Europe was more impressive than any workout.
"He plays like a 25-year-old," one scout recently told Sporting News, "like he has been in the league for five years. He is a great start-and-stop ball handler, he can keep the defense off balance and his court vision is excellent. The real difference you see is that the NBA has changed the rules so much so you can’t touch guards away from the ball or when they have the ball. In Europe, you can still wrestle those guys if you’re a defender.
"So for him, the NBA is a lot less physical, and he is taking advantage."
The criticism making the rounds about Doncic now — that he is an excellent player at age 19 but does not have much room to improve — is much the same as the low-ceiling criticism he got from some teams ahead of the draft.
That’s not entirely Doncic’s fault. The NBA has shied away from super-hyped international prospects, having seen top-five picks going back to Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Darko Milicic (in 2002 and 2003, respectively) flop, and seeing few exceptions thereafter, right through the likes of Dante Exum in 2014, Mario Hezonja in 2015 and Dragan Bender in 2016.
SPORTING NEWS BEST OF 2018
Read our favorite stories from the year in sports
The Kings’ front office, in particular, was said to be down on Doncic’s long-term future, even as others in the organization felt Sacramento should pick him. Instead, the No. 2 pick was used on Duke big man Marvin Bagley III.
Kings coach Dave Joerger caused a minor uproar when he said of the Kings’ pre-draft view of Doncic, "Perhaps there was an idea that there was a ceiling on him. I don’t see it, unfortunately for us." Joerger walked back that comment, but his meaning was clear — the Kings bought into the idea that Doncic’s potential was limited, though Joerger did not agree.
It’s strange to think that, even with the success Doncic has had in his rookie season, there are still doubts floating about how much better he can be. He has already improved on his production from his time in Europe last year, just as he’s done every season as a pro. He’ll keep getting better as he grows and gains experience.
And, really, take another look at the numbers he has put up so far in the league. How much more improvement is needed, anyway?