All Hail Luka Doncic, Europe's 16-Year-Old Hoops Prince

David Pick@@IAmDPickInternational Hoops InsiderNovember 13, 2015

Sixteen-year-old Slovenian wunderkind Luka Doncic reaches for a loose ball during a Real Madrid exhibition game against the Boston Celtics in October. Doncic is already earning playing time for Madrid and NBA draft buzz is emerging around the young prospect.
Sixteen-year-old Slovenian wunderkind Luka Doncic reaches for a loose ball during a Real Madrid exhibition game against the Boston Celtics in October. Doncic is already earning playing time for Madrid and NBA draft buzz is emerging around the young prospect.GERARD JULIEN/Getty Images

Last spring, European powerhouse Real Madrid found itself in a familiar position, cruising toward a blowout win over then-No. 1 seed Unicaja Malaga. The game was out of reach, but a strange buzz filled the famed Barclaycard Center, a buzz only understood by those familiar with the date of birth of Luka Doncic.

A fair-skinned, blond-haired, baby-faced 6'8" Slovenian checked in at the scorer's table, and immediately he found the ball—really, the ball found him—in his first sequence.

"I told him not to think. If he sees the rim, shoot," recalls Zan Tabak, who nurtured Doncic last season as a Madrid assistant coach.

Witness the birth of a European legend in the making for yourself:

By merely gracing the floor, Doncic had become the youngest player ever to play a minute with European juggernaut Real Madrid, at just 16 years of age.

To be sure, this kind of precociousness isn't entirely novel in Spain. Doncic is the third-youngest player in Spanish history to make a varsity league appearance in the ACB, following Minnesota Timberwolves magician Ricky Rubio (14) and Angel Rebolo (15).

That Doncic has managed to carve out a rotation role with Madrid—a star-loaded roster featuring six former NBA players in Sergio Rodriguez, Rudy Fernandez, Gustavo Ayon, Andres Nocioni, Jeffery Taylor and Trey Thompkins—is simply astonishing.

"I didn't expect for him to be at this level so fast," Atlanta Hawks overseas scout Himar Ojeda told Bleacher Report. "He will be the best European of his age group when he enters the NBA draft."

Yes, at 16, many scouts and European basketball insiders are already talking NBA—the NBA draft lottery, specifically.

Rasho Nesterovic, a former NBA champion with the San Antonio Spurs and current secretary general of the Basketball Federation of Slovenia, echoes what many European hoops experts told Bleacher Report—that Doncic has the makings of a top-five pick.

"Luka has a great body and is big enough to compete at the highest level right now," Nesterovic said. "He is much smarter than the average 16-year-old, and I hope he continues like this."

But the speculation seems premature to some, including Doncic’s closest handlers.

"The NBA?" said his father, Sasa Doncic, a six-time Slovenian domestic league All-Star. "He is just 16 years old. I tell him to have fun, be a kid, forget about the money and the cars. Other kids have talent, too, but dream of millions of dollars and lose focus on basketball. The NBA Luka thinks about is watching film of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson."

Doncic's parents visit him often, but his social circles remain within the walls of the dorms with the organization's rising stars. He rooms with 21-year-old center Guillermo Hernangomez, a 2015 draft pick acquired by the New York Knicks on draft night.

photo courtesy of Sasa Doncic

Doncic came here at the ripe age of 13, not long after he had been crowned MVP of the Under-13 Lido di Roma Tournament by dropping 54 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in the finals.

Sasa had seen enough. He shipped his son off to Spain, where Luka signed a monster long-term deal with Real Madrid through 2022, with multiple NBA escape clauses. Sasa explained his choice of Madrid by pointing to the club's development of Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic, one of the NBA's top rookies last season.

"The basketball level in Slovenia in the juniors was going downhill, and I thought it would be best for Luka to go abroad," the elder Doncic said. "We've had lots of interest from teams in Istanbul, Turkey. But I liked how Nikola Mirotic matured and established himself for several years in Real Madrid's junior team. This convinced me."

Since his arrival, Doncic has been named MVP of 10 youth tournaments with Madrid's juniors and led teams to seven championships, including the Euroleague Adidas NGT.

Fellow Slovenian Zoran Dragic, who saw stints with the Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat last season, has witnessed Doncic's development firsthand from the start.

"I remember when Luka was a baby, I was 15 or 16, and played with his father, Sasa," Dragic said. "He would watch us practice and learn the game. ... I think Goran [Dragic] is the best Slovenian player ever, and I'm not saying that because he is my brother. But if Luka goes to the NBA, he can be a bigger star."

Doncic has the full package of skills: athleticism, shooting, ball-handling, toughness, feel for the game, high basketball IQ—you name it. He dribbles with both hands on the break, leverages his length to inhale boards and threads dimes with ease.

"Luka does it all. ... He can go 1 through 4 on the floor," Sasa said. "I don't like to compare him with others, but he has a little bit of Toni Kukoc, he sees the court like Dejan Bodiroga, he moves like Drazen Petrovic and he passes like Milos Teodosic."

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 08: Luka Doncic (R) of Real Madrid and his teammate Guillermo Hernangomez (L) goes up for a rebound during the friendlies of the NBA Global Games 2015 basketball match between Real Madrid and Boston Celtics at Barclaycard Center on
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Doncic is averaging 5.5 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the floor (100% 2P, 57% 3P), 1.8 rebounds, 0.5 assists and 0.5 turnovers in 11.1 minutes through four ACB games. In two Euroleague contests, his numbers stand at 2.5 ppg on 3-of-4 shooting, including 2.5 boards, 1.0 assists and 1.0 turnovers in 11.5 minutes per game. In an October exhibition game against the Boston Celtics, Doncic went scoreless but grabbed four boards and tallied an assist and a block in 16 minutes.

The modest numbers require an obvious caveat: He's 16 years old and playing against some of the world's stiffest competition. It's the glimpses—the moments when talent, athleticism and skill coincide—that make scouts raise their eyebrows.

Not long ago, Doncic lit up Twitter with a one-legged, fadeaway three-pointer against Red Star Belgrade. That shot drew comparisons to the famous Dirk Nowitzki kick-out jumper.

By all accounts, he passes the NBA eye test.

Still, not everyone in Doncic's corner thinks NBA speculation is productive. Slovenian national team head coach Jure Zdovc, who monitors Doncic's Real Madrid statistics online, believes Doncic could become special, but NBA chatter is premature.

"Lots of players today started in professional teams at a young age—Ricky Rubio, Dario Saric, Dragan Bender, Ante Zizic—so Luka is in good company. I think talking about the NBA isn't realistic now. He has a lot of weight on his small shoulders, and he needs to love basketball."

David Pick is a veteran pro basketball reporter covering overseas hoops and American players abroad since 2010. He covers international basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow David Pick on Twitter at @IAmDPick. All quotes were obtained firsthand.


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