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NBA AM: The Doncic Gamble

Luca Doncic could be the first international prospect taken #1 overall since Andrea Bargnani.

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It’s hard to believe, but just a year ago casual NBA fans hadn’t heard of Lonzo Ball. At best, his name rang a bell as one of the more highly-touted prospects in college basketball, with some having a vague understanding of what he and his brothers had accomplished at Chino Hills, but it wasn’t until he had played a few months at UCLA and his father drew the attention of national media that Lonzo Ball became a household name.

So don’t feel bad if you don’t know a whole lot about international guard Luka Doncic, Already considered one of the top players in the 2018 NBA Draft class, Doncic is in some ways a little controversial himself. While fans in New York and Philadelphia have been receptive to Kristaps Porzingis and Dario Saric, respectively, are there NBA teams ready to potentially use a #1 overall selection on a kid from Slovenia?

The last international player with no American university experience to be taken with the first pick was Andrea Bargnani in 2006, and that obviously did not go well. Yao Ming (2002) is the only other top overall selection in league history to have been taken that high without having played organized ball in the U.S. first.

Obviously scouting has come a long way in the last ten to 15 years, and while four of the last five #1 overall selections were not born in the United States, all four of those players did play NCAA basketball. Teams simply do not take international players with #1 overall pick often, which is what makes the prospect of drafting Doncic so risky.

However, what makes him so interesting is that he legitimately deserves to be discussed in the same breath as Michael Porter, Jr., DeAndre Ayton and Mo Bamba in terms of next summer’s top draft pick. Currently a member of Real Madrid, one of the most respected and perennially dominant teams in Europe, Doncic has more accumulated more tape before the age of 19 than any elite international prospect that has come before him, which means the risk involved is less than what may have existed for Bargnani.

In comparing Doncic’s tape to incoming Knicks rookie Frank Ntilikina’s, for example, the difference is stark. The former has played meaningful minutes and put up impressive stats for a European powerhouse. The latter has played nowhere near as much for a lesser team. NBA teams know Doncic can play. The Knicks are simply hoping Ntilikina can.

That’s why it doesn’t really matter that Doncic may not get the national stage players get as a result of Final Four coverage, but he’s the youngest player ever to make Real Madrid’s first team, which means there’s no dearth of footage involving him dominating grown men twice age and exponentially more experienced.

It helps that his skills translate so well to the modern NBA. Doncic is a 6’8” ball handler with elite vision capable of scoring from all over the court. He rebounds well, too, which means if everything breaks right for him at the NBA level he could flirt with triple-doubles on a nightly basis. The comp for him seems to be “Ricky Rubio with a better jumpshot,” but that doesn’t even begin to do Doncic justice. He’s taller than Rubio, for starters, and there aren’t many NBA players that don’t have a more effective jumpshot than Rubio. Doncic is a legitimately good scorer, which paired with his passing abilities should make him a nightmare for NBA defenders. It already is a nightmare for the highest level of hoops competition in Europe.

Defensively he’s nothing like Rubio. He’s done okay in limited minutes against EuroLeague talent, but since he’s not particularly athletic it could be harder for him to stay in front of NBA scorers. Also, playing only around 20 minutes for an incredibly deep Real Madrid team, he hasn’t often had to lock down a team’s best player in the closing minutes after laying out 38 exhausting minutes running up and down the court alongside some of the finest athletes on the face of the planet.

Still, he’s the best international prospect in years by all accounts. Kids his age simply do not do what he has done this early in his career, and he should be even better as a 19-year-old. His Real Madrid teammate Sergio Llull, last year’s EuroBasket MVP, recently tore his ACL, which should give Doncic even more minutes and more opportunity to show improvement this coming season, as if NBA teams needed any more reasons to consider him with a top-three draft selection next June.

All of this is moot if Marvin Bagley reclassifies. He will be the no-brainer #1 overall selection of whatever draft he ends up in, but if that’s not the case Doncic very well could be next year’s top pick.

That in and of itself is pretty incredibly considering the premium that has been placed on three-point shooting and athleticism in the last couple of drafts. Doncic is adept but not elite in either of those areas, but his unprecedented success in Europe at so young and age still makes him the sort of big man playmaker that NBA teams love, even if historically they typically have loved those skills more in players with American university experience.

Still, his early dominance against top Euro talent combined with his ability to score and dish has him at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft class.

Before playing a single game, it already is safe to say he’s no Andrea Bargnani.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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