The wait ends on Wednesday night. The most discussed European prospect in history, Luka Dončić, finally takes the floor in a real life NBA game. Emmet Ryan on all the words he’s written before about the wunderkind and what Europe will be watching for
Ema Meden is a young Slovenian basketball fan. She grew up in an era when DVDs were on the way out, never mind CDs. She’s smart enough to know the save symbol is modeled on a floppy disk but too young to have used a Zip disk never mind a floppy. She wasn’t even in her teens when Goran Dragic made his NBA debut with the Phoenix Suns, a career now entering its 11th season.
She’s also 3 years older than Luka Doncic. That’s the context you need when thinking about just how young the Slovenian wunderkind is. The trophy shelf is already beyond stupid. In simple terms, if you put just the accolades and quantity thereof on any Euros CV, removing the years, every scribe here would argue said player had a successful career and was unlucky not to add the couple of small pieces needed to get a shot at the Naismith Hall of Fame on the international ballot. That CV is already essentially above the minimum necessary for the FIBA Hall of Fame.
That level of accomplishment has come along with more attention than any baller this continent has ever produced. The history of attention and why it mattered for big names out of Europe, really varies.
Going back, way back, the first to get real noise in the US were Arvydas Sabonis and Toni Kukoc. They were drafted four years apart, despite the later drafted Kukoc entering the NBA first. Sabonis got the noise as much because of him being behind the Iron Curtain and not exactly being easy to get hold of at the time yet getting drafted in the first round. Kukoc got the attention because he was the dude coming to Chicago so Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen decided to basically go after him in the 1992 Olympics. In both cases it was matters of curiosity that actually got folk talking.
Going a bit further forward to the Euros that arrived around the turn of the century. Dirk Nowitzki was definitely viewed as a legitimate talent in 1998 with a dash of curiosity, dude was born with the demeanour of literally everyone’s dad when he’s found out they are ordering in pizza. There were gasps when Tony Parker went at 28 in 2001, going to call that one a bargain. Pau Gasol was about as normal as pick as it got of all those, going at 3 the same night as Parker.
The way we watch hoops however was just so challenging back then. All of them had come through really different systems in Europe, scouting of the continent wasn’t where it is now and English language reporting in particular of the game here was just not in the same discussion (BiE for example came into existence 6 years after Gasol was drafted and most other resources covering here in English are younger). The names were on the radar for the hardcore fan but they had trouble seeing them play.
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The die hard might, and I really mean might, have seen Ricky Rubio (outside of Olympic action) and Andrea Bargnani before they were each drafted in 2009 and 2006 respectively. Odds are though the first Euro they got a decent peak of with a passable connection was Jonas Valanciunas, drafted in 2011. Since then, it’s gotten a lot easier. There was plenty of Mario Hezonja to see between youth tournaments and Euroleague play before he was drafted in 2015 although that said, his classmate Kristaps Porzingis still required some work to see a decent amount of if you were stateside.
One thing you notice though as this progresses is that coverage got more comprehensive and detailed as the years went on. It was easier for more people who cover basketball or work in the sport to see more of these players. Scouting systems improving may be the primary reason Euros get more attention than they did a generation or two ago but broadband is at least a close second if not ahead of it. The only player to buck the trend, pun not intended, was Giannis Antetokounmpo and that’s as much to do with how late he appeared on the broader European radar as anything else. America was talking about the Greek Freak just as soon as this continent was.
Which brings us to a month before Mario and Kristaps heard their names called. I’m pretty sure it was Rob Scott* who told me that a player on Real Madrid whose name I immediately forgot was the lad to watch in the Adidas Next Generation Tournament. Real won in front of their own fans and Doncic looked hungry enough from the outside, skinny as a bean, and confident considering he was going up against players who were more than two years older than him in some cases. He made enough of an impression in the half game I saw during group stages to get a mention in a piece I wrote drunk about solving the sport’s problems the night before his squad took the title against a fun Crzvena Zvezda squad.
*It may have been Sam Meyerkopf or Dave Hein who said it first so my apologies to both if I got it wrong. Rob gets fewer nights out than you two now so we’ll give him that.
That was basically the beginning of a lot of talking about Luka Doncic. That was his last day as a junior, despite being just 16, and won his first ACB crown (Spanish championship) a few weeks later. That ramped up the chat and by September in Lille, as EuroBasket was hitting the business end, he was the young name from Europe most scribes said to watch when Americans asked to watch. They were then disappointed to find out they would have to wait another three seasons to get drafted.
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Doncic featured as Real took the FIBA Intercontinental Cup over Bauru, the last time to date the Euroleague champion has played for that title, although his impression wasn’t significant as we wrote at the time:
Doncic didn’t do a lot in his time on the floor but he looked happy to charge into opponents and get physical despite his still developing body. What amount of action he gets with Real’s first team this year will be interesting to see.
I really should add that was the first time I properly saw him playing against adults.
That first full season as part of the first team roster was education for Doncic. He was playing for a team with a target on its back and everyone was gunning for Real and this side was exhausted.
The bulk of the roster had essentially not had a break of any significance since the previous season. The Spanish side that won EuroBasket 2015 along with Jonas Maciulis (who played for Lithuania against Spain in the final) was loaded with Real players. They then had to make that flight to Brazil for the Intercontinental Cup and then go right into pre-season for Spanish play.
That they managed to retain the ACB crown along with the Copa del Rey merits serious props but it was no surprise that they missed out on the Final Four in Berlin, getting swept by Fenerbahce in the playoffs. Still, it was a season that was ripe for a teenager with energy to exploit and deliver some big moments.
Unto Moscow do we shift our scene:
A real break for Real allowed for everything to kick up a notch. Their players could recover with less of an international load. Pre-season for 2016-17 saw Doncic featured a lot more and it became clear that he was going to have a major role throughout the coming season. The Slovenian sensation delivered and kept on delivering. He got the full profile treatment here after Real booked their spot in the Final Four in Istanbul, and it really felt like it was going to be his breakout weekend. Doncic was slammed with reporters the eve of the Final Four, even more than any of the hometown Fenerbahce players, but then he had a noctem horrendam that really was a horrible weekend all in but it was that dire display that stuck as stumbled in the spotlight.
One of the best things about being young however is that you’re going to have chances to make up for those bad nights. Doncic got his in that very same arena in Istanbul and took it at the first opportunity. Then he got another in the same place a couple of nights later and bossed a Latvian team featuring Porzingis. Then he delivered big against Pau and Marc Gasol and Spain in the same spot. Then, when he went down hurt against a Serbian side featuring Bogdan Bogdanovic and Boban Marjonovic his buddies made sure he got what he needed to put any remaining ghosts of that city to rest. EuroBasket 2017 brought Slovenia to dreamland and should have ended any debate about Doncic in big moments.
Through this, there was an extra level of comfort as Doncic was eased into his media facing role. After the wins over Ukraine and Latvia he was rushed past the English speaking media and even the Slovene media barely got a moment with him. Then, once they beat Spain, the shackles came off a bit and he smiled walking into the war zone.
Roughly nobody expected him to do the mixed zone after they won the title due to his injury but out hopped Doncic to talk to everyone from around the world and express his delight, along with giving an accurate update that the injury wasn’t serious (he was back on the floor with Real inside a fortnight). A few minutes later he was in the press conference room spraying champagne on his head coach.
In a normal narrative in a sport that didn’t involve the peculiarities of the major leagues in the United States, that would have been the send off as he would have made a Kylian Mbappé grade move to one of the biggest teams on the planet and his story over here would have ended.
Instead it took on a radical new dimension as his running buddy in the back court of Real Madrid had missed EuroBasket and was going to be gone for the bulk of the season. Sergio Llull was the dude running the show for Los Blancos and the veteran laden roster around him looked straight to Doncic to step up. The kid didn’t blink. Through a tough regular season, he delivered MVP quality performances and was a veteran brain throughout.
Then came the utter pummeling, in a proper physical sense, as he led Real against Panathinaikos in the playoffs. There are few more intimidating arenas in sport than the OAKA and Doncic got all the beating anyone could take and, first time round, it went terribly and then he got down to business. The young man ran at those looking to take him down and brought Real the gentleman’s sweep to book their place in Belgrade.
Now the clock was ticking on Doncic. He had the full Spanish playoffs ahead with Real but this was going to be his last chance, realistically, to complete his medal collection in Europe. That brought all the attention again as he was the unquestioned face of the Final Four. Once more he was the one player everyone needed to meet on the eve of the event, and he sat less perturbed this time by the sheer number of bodies around him. A touch frustrated by the obvious NBA questions a year earlier, this time he was much more comfortable giving the same non answers.
Then came the CSKA game and he took care of business. Fenerbahce awaited in the final and he was disciplined in his dominance. Doncic deserved the MVP, on the balance of the weekend he delivered, but he did it without being explosive. There wasn’t one explosive move or a clever thing you could point to that was unique. He was measured, it was a grown-up performance.
The run through from there was a little odd as the debate became awfully confused. Twitter stanning got silly as fans of Doncic and DeAndre Ayton got into arguments that make the Joel Embiid vs Nikola Jokic ones seem sane. This was doubly silly given every impression since the summer has implied Ayton and Doncic like each other and don’t seem awfully bothered about the order in which they are drafted and…shockingly…are far more focused on ensuring they actually play good basketball. I used to get worried when the teenagers were the ones that sounded mature in the room, now I’ve come to expect it and see it as the only hope for humanity.
Even our annual draftnik Sam Chadwick found it a little odd trying to describe Doncic to the world given how much of him was out there. Enough of what Doncic had done had been seen by a broad variety of American observers to form well-round opinions on him.
And that may be the real thing to think about here. Doncic is the first superstar international prospect of the broadband age. The average speeds available to the home or the phone in 2015, never mind 2011, 2006, or 1998 (where you’d have tried to watch Dirk while playing Snake I guess), pale in comparison to today. The advantages of proximity meant Doncic played at times more suitable to European audiences and it was easier for us to go over and watch him play, but those looking to learn about him had options.
Since he moved over, we’ve been the ones jumping on every source available. The Mavs in-house podcasts in particular have proven a good link.
On Wednesday as he suits up for the Mavs I’ll be getting my hotel in London (I’ll be over there for work) to set my wake-up call for 3.30am…so long as I get to bed early the preceding part of the evening. For Ema it will be a little easier, the game is at 4.30am her time. First touch for the kid in the association? It’s worth the silly nonsense with a body clock for one night.
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