As much as we think of the NBA as one of the most progressive leagues in sports in terms of embracing international players, there has been an enduring stigma around drafting international prospects. For every Dirk Nowitzki or Pau Gasol, there are five Darko Milicics or Nikoloz Tskitishvilis. May it be fair or unfair, international prospects tend to be viewed as soft, nonathletic and can't take the physicality and grind of the NBA.
While it is true that, in general, American prospects are more athletic and have more ‘NBA-ready' bodies come draft night, European prospects often compensate for this lack of athleticism by having high basketball IQs and good fundamentals.
In recent years, there have been more international prospects that have been drafted and have produced quite well in the NBA. You could argue that the uptick in the performance of these players can be attributed to the rule changes that have been implemented by the NBA which promotes a less physical but much more free-flowing game which would cater more to international players. So does the negative stereotype have any truth to it?
A study was conducted by Cronkite News to look into this by comparing win shares – an estimate of the number of wins a player contributes to his team based on various statistical categories – of European prospects and American prospects. As per Ben Liebowitz of Cronkite News:
“International players who were drafted in that span averaged 18.4 career win shares. Players drafted out of American colleges or high schools, meanwhile, notched 17.6 career win shares on average.
“In other words, data suggests league general managers are not at any greater risk of drafting a bust if they choose an international prospect over one who competed against college competition — despite some viewpoints to the contrary.”
Enter Luka Doncic. The 19 year old, 6-foot-8 Slovenian guard, dubbed as the ‘WonderBoy’, is widely considered as the next European sensation. His team Real Madrid plays in the Liga ACB and the Euroleague — leagues that are widely considered as second to the NBA in terms of level of competition and talent level of players.
Both leagues are littered with NBA-level talent and grown men who are experienced at playing the sport at a very high level.
Well, guess who was the MVP in both leagues? Yep, it’s Luka Doncic. He is as accomplished a European player as you will ever find, let alone a guy of his age and doing it with such flare. ESPN’s Mina Kimes provided her take on the young Slovenian sensation.
“Given his age, Doncic's production is almost unprecedented; rotations in the EuroLeague run deeper than they do in the NBA, which makes it hard for young players to tally meaningful minutes. (Several executives told me that the typical EuroLeague team would crush collegiate competition.)
According to ESPN's Kevin Pelton, Doncic has the highest wins above replacement player (WARP) projection of any European prospect since 2006, when data became available. Based on Pelton's calculations, which take into account age and how other European prospects' statistics have translated to NBA production, Doncic's WARP projection isn't just higher than Ricky Rubio's and Nikola Jokic's — it's also the highest projection on record, even besting that of a young Anthony Davis.”
Just for comparison’s sake, the former 4th overall pick of the New York Knicks and superstar Kristaps Porzingis averaged 11 points, 4.6 rebounds and 0.5 assists per game in his final year playing for Baloncesto Seville.
On the other hand, Doncic averaged 14.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists on a winning team this past season. He also played for the Slovenian National Team in the 2017 Eurobasket, which is undoubtedly the most competitive FIBA region in the world, and they won the gold medal against perennial powerhouses Spain, France, Lithuania and Argentina.
Doncic actually played against Porzingis in the EuroBasket. On one particular play, he made a basket on Porzingis and glanced at him while running back up the floor. Saying he is mature and confident beyond his years would be a massive understatement.
“I wanted to kill him,” Porzingis says with a laugh, adding that he was “never that consistent” at Doncic's age. “I don't know any other European kid that plays at such a high level.”
Judging by these numbers, Doncic is as close as you will get to a sure thing in the NBA Draft. The discussions around him are not whether or not he is going to be a bust but rather how much upside he has given the high draft position he was drafted in (3rd by the Atlanta Hawks eventually traded to the Dallas Mavericks for Trae Young).
He is a very good scorer both inside and outside and has highly advanced footwork. He is a very good ball handler, an above average rebounder, and has great size for a guy of his position. An extremely good passer, he plays multiple positions and does not shy away from making big shots in the end game.
Watch him play and he will surely pass the good old eye test. He plays at his own pace. He never seems to be rushed which results to good decision-making. Most importantly, Doncic is a winner. He has won everywhere he has played for, with individual awards to boot.
As Miami Heat guard and Slovenia teammate Goran Dragic puts it: “He's a born winner. No, I'm not kidding, he already has a lot of trophies, and medals. I'm happy for him. Mark my words, he's going to be one of the best in the whole world.”
Now, Dragic and I could be absolutely wrong about Doncic. As much scouting and analysis are put into this matter, it is very much about luck as it is science. No one can say with absolute certainty that Doncic will succeed in the NBA as a lot of things can happen between now until the end of his career.
But if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t bet against the WonderBoy