Luka Doncic Has the Goods to Crush the NBA's Euro Bias Once and for All

Ric Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterOctober 29, 2018

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 24: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks handles the ball against the Atlanta Hawks on October 24, 2018 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Someone on Twitter wrote it. American-born NBA rookie Michael Porter Jr. liked it. No international player in the NBA was surprised by it.

"The most overrated person I've seen in my life," the tweet said in response to an ESPN poll that showed Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic as the top vote-getter for who the 2018-19 Rookie of the Year would be. Porter, a former No. 1-ranked U.S. high school player drafted 14th by the Denver Nuggets, clicked his approval, though he later told ESPN the co-sign was "an accident" and that he reached out to Doncic to say as much.

Cue the eye rolls, at least among other international players. Young and old believe Porter merely expressed a belief still widely held by U.S.-born players, U.S. media and, yes, a faction of NBA executives about international players in general. What makes Doncic differentand such skepticism particularly egregious—is that his track record and profile are unlike any international player to enter the NBAever. None have come close to his dominance at such a young age, which includes being named MVP of Spain's La Liga while leading Real Madrid to its championship and then being named MVP while leading Real Madrid to a Euroleague championship. All at the tender age of 19.

No one in the NBA is as familiar with Doncic as Suns coach Igor Kokoskov, who, as the Slovenian national team coach, teamed up with Doncic and Miami Heat point guard Goran Dragic to win gold in the 2017 EuroBasket championship. He explained why, for as much as the NBA's international inclusivity has improved, scouts and talent evaluators might not fully grasp what Doncic is.

"I told him two years ago he belonged here [in the NBA]," Kokoskov says. "Twenty, 25 years ago, only the best of the best in Europe could even think about coming over and playing here [as free agents], and they were 24, 25 years old. When it came to drafting international players, you took young ones on potential and projected that someday they'd be good. But we're talking about Luka, who at 19 is already proven. He's achieved so much you don't have to guess that he's The Guy."

The NBA has come a long way since 1984, when France's Herve Dubuisson played for the New Jersey Nets' summer-league team and failed to make the regular-season roster for not playing D. A suspicion remains, though, that any player born and developed outside of the U.S. must overcome—that they're not as good as advertised, that there is an exchange rate on whatever success they had over there, which is less than the value of doing something here. Doncic, a Slovenian who played in Spain, merely is the latest to arrive under that cloud of suspicion.

Like Luka Doncic, Pau Gasol was drafted and then immediately traded by the Atlanta Hawks.
Like Luka Doncic, Pau Gasol was drafted and then immediately traded by the Atlanta Hawks.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

"You could call it ignorance," says Spain's Pau Gasol, now in his 18th season and, just like Doncic, a No. 3 selection by the Atlanta Hawks dealt elsewhere (the Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies on draft night in 2001). "It can be a little bit surprising how much the international game has grown if you're not really on top of it. But we can be the same in Europe. I had no clue who Kwame Brown or Shane Battier were, and Shane was the college player of the year."

The respect and appreciation for international players wasn't even supposed to be an issue anymore. Not with nearly a fourth of the league's 400-some players listed as internationals, a percentage roughly represented in the last All-Star game (five of 24).

But there remains a perception that the international game doesn't equate to the NBA in style or athleticism and that a dominant playmaker overseas will find the space and angles harder to find against quicker, longer, more agile players. Then there's the concern about taking a young man and air-dropping him into a different culture to contend with a different language. All of which, in the long, heated draft-room debates about who to take at the very top of the draft, can loom large when there's a better-known, already assimilated alternative.

Pat Riley's reluctance to draft foreign players is legendary. Since taking charge of the Heat's basketball operations in 1995, he has drafted 35 players; three were from overseas, Pape Sow in 2004, Stanko Barac in 2007 and Bojan Bogdanovic in 2011, and he dealt them on draft night.

"It's a matter of comfort," says one Eastern Conference scout who has assessed foreign and collegiate players alike. "There is more risk taking a foreign player. There are more variables. And a lot of teams just want to mitigate their risk."

The difficulty for NBA teams is determining if a player can adjust to the league's speed and athleticism while adapting to different food, travel, weather and language. Plenty of American players fail to adjust to the same off-court challenges overseas. The difference is that a foreign team will simply cut or stop paying an American player, whereas an NBA team already has invested a valuable resourcea draft pickand NBA contracts are guaranteed.

"It's one of the hardest parts of our job," the scout says. "A foreign player may play against one or two players overseas that have NBA speed and athleticism. How are they going to do surrounded by them? Then there's the language barrier, the food. A good amount of foreign players don't really like it over here. They'd rather be in Europe."

Gasol's transition was eased when his parents and siblings moved with him to the United States, but he still remembers struggling with the language and players such as Kevin Garnett screaming it in his face. Nowitzki struggled mightily with everything, particularly as a rookie, but he doesn't see the same obstacles for Doncic.

Dirk Nowitzki admits he struggled to feel comfortable playing in the NBA and living in the United States early in his career.
Dirk Nowitzki admits he struggled to feel comfortable playing in the NBA and living in the United States early in his career.PAUL BUCK/Getty Images

"He's already got a good setup," Nowitzki says. "He brought his people over with him. He's already lived somewhere else, while this was my first time living away from home. He speaks numerous languages, which I didn't. The game is different, too. It wasn't as wide open when I got here. It was iso and post play, dribbling 85 times and backing guys down. It was harder on Euros. The game today plays into their hands."

It doesn't take long to see what makes Doncic different. Every time he gets the ball, it's the equivalent of when a conductor picks up his baton.

In the first five minutes of the Mavericks' season opener against the Suns, he provided a how-to video on the various ways to set up a big man, DeAndre Jordan, and torture a young one, No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton. On a pick-and-roll play from the top of the key, Doncic got a step on Trevor Ariza, waited for Ayton to close on him and then wrapped a pass around Ayton's waist for a Jordan dunk. On a fast break, Doncic saw at midcourt he had Wes Matthews in the left corner, Dorian Finney-Smith in the right corner and Jordan lurking at the short right corner. He angled toward Matthews, dragging three Suns to the left—leaving one, Ariza, to guard Jordan and Finney-Smith. Ariza split the difference, and the second he did, Doncic fed Jordan with a lob for a lay-in. Next, on a side pick-and-roll off an inbounds play, Jordan picked Ariza, and Doncic drove at Ayton waiting in the paint and threw a behind-the-back bounce pass for a rolling Jordan to finish.

Ayton wasn't caught by surprise. He just couldn't do anything about Doncic's wizardryand he had his moment as well, completing an and-1 play when Doncic got stuck on a switch and had to guard him on the right block. They both signed with the same agency, BDA, which prompted Ayton to find a tape of Doncic's play with Real Madrid.

"He's very sophisticated when it comes to basketball," Ayton says. "I understand why it was a tough decision [for Phoenix] when it came to who should be the No. 1 pick. The passes he made were insane. You can tell [the Mavs] totally trust him as a playmaker. He draws so much attention, and he's super strong coming to the rim. Dallas made a great pickup."

If there is one team that will be scrutinized for not fully appreciating all that, it's the Hawks, who made a draft-night deal to select Doncic with the No. 3 pick and then flip him to the Mavericks for the fifth pick, Oklahoma guard Trae Young, and a protected 2019 first-round pick. The half-dozen foreign-born players surveyed believe a player of Doncic's caliber, at his age, should've overridden drafting by need and that he should've been the consensus No. 1 pick. "I would've never taken Trae Young over him," the Eastern Conference scout says.

Doncic is listed as a guard-forward, but it is his floor generalship and playmaking that are truly extraordinary. One veteran scout gave him the ultimate praise for a point forward: "He's a better passer than Larry Bird was at his age."

Indeed, there is a healthy faction of stateside players, executives and media willing to rave about Doncic as a player and project a bright NBA future for him. But considering what he did last year aloneproving himself far and away the best player against the stiffest European competition at the tender age of 19the only way to question his being the favorite to win Rookie of the Year is to question what being the best player against the stiffest European competition at the tender age of 19 means.

"Let's put it this way: I guarantee you, nobody in college [last year] could've done what he did," says French native and Orlando Magic swingman Evan Fournier. "Every international player has to fight against [that stigma]. You have to do more to prove yourself."

Nowitzki seconded that first point. "Competition in Europe is somewhere between college and the NBA. He's been playing against grown men and they might not be quite as athletic, but they know all the tricks. It's obviously a step below the NBA. The smarts and competition level is clearly above college, though."

Both off to solid starts this season, Trae Young and Doncic are likely to see their careers cast against each other for years to come.
Both off to solid starts this season, Trae Young and Doncic are likely to see their careers cast against each other for years to come.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Mavericks equipment manager Al Whitley, who grew up with Steve Nash in Canada and has been with the team for 17 years, has watched firsthand the assimilation of both Nash and Nowitzki. Doncic, he says, "is a different animal. Don't let the smile fool you. He's way more ready for this than Dirk was."

For his part, Doncic shrugs off any thought that he has to validate what he did in Europe or that he's carrying some mantle for international players. "I've lived with pressure since I was 16," he says. "When I go on the court, I just forget about it and enjoy playing basketball."

While international players have healthy rivalries among themselves, Kokoskov acknowledged that when it comes to the NBA, there is a collective desire to smash the idea that they are a step below U.S.-born players until proved otherwise.

"There's a little bit of that, for sure," Kokoskov says. "We would like to change that perception."

Doncic could very well be the biggest sledgehammer they've ever had.


Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.