It is always easy to say which move is better in retrospect, but to be completely honest, as a Phoenix Suns fan, I was praying for the Suns to take a “risky” choice in Luka Dončić. Of course, as we all know, not only did the Suns pass on Luka with the first overall choice of the 2018 NBA Draft when they drafted DeAndre Ayton, but the Sacramento Kings did as well with their selection of Marvin Bagley III. Now, in 2020, this move looks foolish as Luka ranks first in his draft class in points per game (24.4) along with multiple other advanced stats, and second in rebounds per game (8.5) and assists per game (7.1). Not to mention that the rebounding leader from the 2018 draft class has never made the playoffs with the Suns and the assist leader has never made the playoffs with the Atlanta Hawks.
But is it only obvious that Luka would become an MVP-caliber player with the advantage of retrospect, or were there signs of future greatness before he was drafted? In my opinion, it was clear that he was destined for NBA stardom and here is why.
3. Saša Dončić
For anybody who doesn’t know, Luka’s father Saša was a professional basketball player for various clubs in Slovenia, Serbia and France. The 6’7″ shooting guard/small forward had a 17-year journeymen-type career, ending in 2010. This means that Luka’s father was playing professionally for the first 11 years of his life.
Now, having a father who played in the pros doesn’t lead to stardom necessarily, as we’ve seen the sons of Micheal Jordan, Patrick Ewing, and many others fail to build NBA careers of their own. It does, however, greatly increase the odds because of so much exposure to the game at an early age. Having a father playing professionally in Europe provided Luka access to high-level coaching, along with first-hand exposure to various aspects of the lifestyle associated with being a professional athlete including travel and training habits.
It also helped for Luka to inherit his father’s 6″7′ height.
2. Amateur & Early Professional Career Accolades
Luka’s under-18 resume is extremely impressive and nearly too long to list. Some of his accolades include being the Minicopa del Rey MVP (2013), EB Next Generation Tournament MVP & Champion (2015), FIBA Intercontinental Cup Champion (2015), 2x Spanish King’s Cup Winner (2016, 2017), 3x ACB All-Young Players Team (2016-2018), 2x ACB Best Young Player (2017, 2018), All-Liga ACB 1st Team (2018), Liga ACB MVP (2018), 3x Liga ACB Champion (2015, 2016, 2018), 2x EuroLeague Rising Star (2017, 2018), All-EuroLeague 1st Team (2018), EuroLeague MVP (2018), and EuroLeague Final Four MVP and Champion (2018). I know that an argument could be made that this isn’t the most accomplished ACB or EuroLeague resume in totality, but considering he only played on Real Madrid‘s professional team for three seasons, it is almost impossible to dispute how much he accomplished at an extremely young age.
Some may argue that these accomplishments mean nothing because Luka didn’t play in college or that overseas basketball doesn’t compare to NBA basketball, but that is one of the most ignorant arguments that can be made. According to an article written by Fran Fraschilla, the Euroleague and Liga ACB rank as the best and second best professional basketball leagues in the world besides the NBA, respectively.
Luka became the third youngest player to ever make an appearance in an ACB game, the third best league in the entire world, at the age of 16 years and 2 months old. In comparison, when an American is 16 years old, they are likely a junior in high school, but possibly even a sophomore depending on their birthday. So a 16 year old American is playing against other kids within a general age range of 16-18, while Luka was in both the EuroLeague and ACB, the second and third best professional basketball leagues in the world. By the time he was 18, or the age of a high school senior or college freshman, he was the MVP and champion of both leagues.
To put the quality of competition at such a young age into perspective further, let’s look at who he was playing with and against. Looking at his Real Madrid stats during the 2017-18 EuroLeague season, Luka was the team’s leading scorer at 16 points in only 25.9 minutes played per game. Of his 16 teammates that season, four were former high-profile college players in the United States, while eight had NBA playing experience. In addition, two of his teammates, Felipe Reyes and Sergio Llull are essentially Real Madrid legends, which adds to how impressive it is that he led his team alone.
Now to compare Luka with his competition, we will look at the 25 players besides him who won an MVP of a round in the EuroLeague season, which is essentially player of the week. Of these 25 players, 12 played in college in the United States and 15 made NBA appearances. This obviously doesn’t take all EuroLeague players into account, but is a general profile of some of its’ best players. This proves that during the years a normal American would be playing in high school, Luka was playing against other young prospects, former college All-Americans, former NBA players, and established overseas stars.
Playing and dominating at this level so early should have made it clear to others that he had stardom written all over him.
- 2017 EuroBasket Championship
The 2017 EuroBasket Championship was the event that at the time moved Luka from being a foreign prospect I had heard of before to being one that I saw undeniable talent in. The thing that blew my mind was that Slovenia won a basketball tournament that involved all of the major European basketball powerhouses, when Slovenia is never a country mentioned as a contender in the Olympics. Looking back at the roster, the only players I recognize are Anthony Randolph, who is a former NBA player and current Real Madrid player, Goran Dragić of the Miami Heat, Vlatko Čančar who I had never heard of but is now a member of the Denver Nuggets, and Luka. This impressed me a ton because Dragić is one of my favorite NBA point guards, but I knew he wasn’t good enough to win this tournament without another star player.
Further solidifying how impressive this championship run was, some of the teams they beat had much more recognizable NBA talent than they did. In Slovenia’s group, France had 7 names easily recognizable to me, Greece had 4, Finland had 1, while Poland and Iceland each had none. Slovenia swept the group, even France and Greece. In the knockout stage, Ukraine had 1 name recognizable to me, Latvia had 3, Spain had 8, and Serbia had 2 in the Final round. With that said, a lot of these teams look better than Slovenia on paper, which is why winning this tournament was the clear moment to me that he proved he was destined for greatness in the NBA.