Brandon Paul, a former Illini great and current Philadelphia 76ers’ camp invitee, has played all over the world in his collegiate and professional career. Whether it was in the Big Ten, NBA Summer League, D-League, or even the Spanish ACB, Paul has played against a long list of superb basketball talent in recent years. When asked who stood out for him last season in the top league in Spain, a few names came to mind.
Juan and Guillermo Hernangomez who now play for the Nuggets and Knicks, respectively–made an impression on Paul. He also mentioned 7-footer Alen Omic of Gran Canaria, though not directly as Paul said he’s “pretty bad with names”. Paul was also quick to mention one player in particular that impressed him in Spain.
“There’s a couple really good young guys on (Real) Madrid,” Paul said. “There was one guy that I think was 17 years old and got called up to play with them”.
That player is 17-year-old basketball prodigy Luka Doncic.
Doncic is a name everyone needs to know in the basketball world. The Slovenian guard debuted for Real Madrid at 16 years old during the 2014-15 season. Real Madrid isn’t some obscure, cash-strapped European team. Real Madrid has won the most Euroleague titles in history and has boasted players such as Drazen Petrovic, Arvydas Sabonis, Sergio Rodriguez, Nikola Mirotic, and current players such as Rudy Fernandez, Andres Nocioni, and Sergio Llull.
Heck, Real Madrid even beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in a preseason game on Monday (more on that later).
Doncic isn’t just sitting on the bench, either; he’s already become a key player for the nine-time Euroleague champs.
The 6-foot-8 swingman played 55 games and 668 minutes across all competitions with Real Madrid last season. His numbers jumped off the page for any player, let alone a 16-year old playing his first real minutes for the senior team. He averaged 12.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.1 steals, and 0.9 blocks per 36 minutes with a shooting line of .500/.368/.740.
He was the only player in the ACB to put up that gaudy stat line per 36 minutes. For comparison’s sake, the only players in the NBA to average at least 12 points, seven rebounds, and five assists per game last season were Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Draymond Green, per Basketball-Reference (min. 600 MP).
Doncic, of course, isn’t facing NBA competition, but he’s still playing in the most competitive domestic league in the world outside the NBA and thriving against guys sometimes decades older than him. He also proved he can hold his own against NBA competition on Monday.
He finished with three points, five rebounds, and four assists in 18 minutes in Real Madrid’s wild 142-137 overtime victory over the Thunder, becoming the second youngest player ever to appear in an NBA preseason game. He impacted the game in far more ways than the box score would indicate:
Here he is, guarding quite possibly the most terrifying player to stay in front of in the entire NBA in Russell Westbrook. Remember, Doncic is a 6-foot-8 guard.
He initially cuts Westbrook’s drive off and nearly forces him to turn the ball over. Westbrook then backs the ball out and asks his teammates to clear the floor for an iso. Doncic moves his feet remarkably well and forces Westbrook into a wild jumper. People might say “oh, this is just one play,” but watch what Westbrook does when defenders switch onto him for even one play at the NBA level. He makes them look very bad most the time, but Doncic showed his defensive versatility even at such a young age.
Doncic blocks Ersan Ilyasova on the break with a nice chase down rejection at the start of this play. He then sprints the floor on the rebound and showcases his moves in the open court. He gets past Victor Oladipo with a slick behind-the-back crossover and then executes a behind-the-back pass for an easy layup. Unfortunately, he was called for a charge on the play, but the sequence was still exhilarating.
Doncic’s greatest skills at this stage of his career are his ability to play in the open court and his superb playmaking skills:
Here’s a supercut of Doncic’s best passes from Monday’s game. He finished with four assists, but he made plenty of great passes that didn’t lead directly to buckets. He’s running the offense and playing point guard in the first clip with Westbrook guarding him. He wisely sets up Jayce Carroll for the mid-range jumper off a screen.
Doncic made all kinds of passes in the game. He can hit guys on the break, whip passes in the corner, drop bounce passes out of pick and rolls, or even throw picture-perfect lob passes as seen on the last play. Doncic looks like anything but a 17-year old in that series of clips. Also remember all of these passes came from one game where he only played 18 minutes against NBA players.
Since Doncic is so young, he won’t be eligible for the NBA draft until 2018. Expect the Slovenian to be selected in the top ten when the day comes, and maybe even higher. Ricky Rubio, who hold’s the record for youngest player to debut in the ACB at 14 years old with Joventut (the club Paul played for last season), was selected fifth overall in the 2009 draft after years of playing as a teenager in the ACB.
Kristaps Porzingis, who played for Sevilla in the ACB when he was 17 years old, was selected with the fourth pick in 2015 and thrived as a rookie. Dragan Bender, who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv’s senior team at 17 years old, was just selected fourth overall by the Phoenix Suns in the 2016 draft. What makes Doncic arguably even more unique than Rubio, Porzingis, and Bender before him is that he started playing for the most prestigious club overseas from the get go. Rubio didn’t play for Barcelona until he was 19 and Bender faced far less stiff competition in the Israeli league. Porzingis never played in the Euroleague during his time with Sevilla.
What Doncic has already accomplished is unprecedented. He still has a couple of seasons to add to his game and earn even more playing time for Real Madrid before coming to the NBA (and that’s if he chooses to come over right away, which Rubio and Porzingis didn’t do). His turnover numbers are especially worrisome but understandable for a player with his lack of professional experience.
If Doncic continues to improve and put up gaudy numbers over a much larger sample size, he could end up being the highest international draft pick since Andrea Bargnani over a decade ago.
Paul, who had the chance to play against Doncic last season, envisions a bright future for the Slovenian wunderkind.
“I think it’s great to see. He definitely has a lot of upside to him,” Paul said. “To be able to play on a team in a place like Real Madrid, he’ll definitely be able to grow and get better over there. I look forward to his future. I think if he continues to work, the NBA’s definitely in his future.”