This first appeared in the Sept. 18 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, The Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
As the NBA prepares to open training camp, basketball fans likely are immersed in other things, from the NFL and college football to the start of school and the end of summer.
NBA teams, however, have had something else to focus on: the culmination of Eurobasket, the meeting of 24 countries in Europe aiming to earn the title of continental champion. And while plenty of NBA players took part in the competition, one player who has yet to arrive at the sport’s highest level — Slovenia’s Luka Doncic — stole the show.
As one talent evaluator who watched Doncic this month succinctly put it, he is “the best European prospect in years and years.”
How many years? All the way back, he said, to when Pau Gasol entered the draft in 2001.
That’s how impressive the 18-year-old was — alongside current NBA star Goran Dragic and former NBA big man Anthony Randolph — in leading tiny Slovenia to an undefeated run, including a come-from-behind 93-85 victory Sunday that Doncic left midway through with an ankle injury.
Nothing else could come close to slowing Doncic. He averaged 14.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists for Slovenia, showing off the kind of all-around skill level and athleticism that’s made him a surefire top-five pick in what is looking like a loaded 2018 NBA draft class.
“He’s mature beyond his years, and has great court vision and basketball IQ,” the executive said.
“He’s a natural leader, and capable of impacting the game without scoring, but can take over. He won’t dominate, but his teams will win games with his fingerprints all over the game.”
Doncic put all of that on display throughout the tournament. He showed off his ability to go end-to-end Sunday with a spectacular grab-and-go bucket that saw him go coast-to-coast before shooting through the lane and throwing down a dunk.
And it was only after he got hurt that Slovenia, which had led for most of the game, began to lose its grip. It still managed to come back and win, capping off a remarkable story for the country of just two million people — including a dominant victory over heavy favorite Spain in a semifinal in which Doncic posted 11 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists and no turnovers.
There will be questions about his athletic ability. Some will say he’s just another hyped up European prospect whose game will look far different at the highest level.
But Doncic already is one of the top players for Real Madrid, one of the world’s best teams outside of the NBA, as a teenager. And with Sergio Llull, one of Spain’s leading players and a Real Madrid icon, having torn his ACL earlier this summer, Doncic will be the hub of Madrid’s attack this season.
Then, next spring, he’ll enter the NBA draft, where as a 6-foot-7 wing he offers the kind of versatility and playmaking teams are drooling over in a player that size. And anyone who watched him play in Eurobasket saw the kind of emotion and competitive fire fans and teammates will quickly eat up.
Perhaps most telling, though, was the way his Slovenian teammates carried him onto the court after the game so they could all celebrate their remarkable achievement together.
The injury certainly put a damper on a magical month for Doncic, but his long-term outlook has never been brighter. The past two weeks have served as a marker to not only the NBA, but the other elite talents — Duke’s Marvin Bagley, Missouri’s Michael Porter, Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton and Texas A&M’s Robert Williams — fighting to be at the top of next year’s draft.
Slovenia’s greatest basketball moment came Sunday, thanks in no small part to Luka Doncic. But for him, this was just the beginning. His play the past two weeks has made sure of that.
Are you interested in smart, thoughtful analysis of the NBA from The Washington Post and around the Web delivered to your inbox every Monday morning? If so, sign up for the Monday Morning Post Up, The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter.