17 year old Luka Doncic is currently projected to go #2 overall in the 2018 draft, and it seems absurd to discuss whether he may be the best prospect ever. But when I say best prospect ever, I really mean “best prospect of past 35ish years” because I honestly have no idea how to retrospectively rate prospects like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, or Wilt Chamberlain.
It is not that probabilistically unlikely that any given draft will contain the best prospect of a 35 year stretch. It is akin to winning a bet on a specific number in roulette, which happens all the time. And in 5 drafts since my blog has existed, this is the first time I have raised the question. The odds of the top prospect existing in a 5 year stretch is 1 out 7, barely lower than the odds of rolling a particular number with a die. It stands to reason that in 1/7 of the sample of drafts that at least one player should raise the possibility, so this should not taken as a hyperbolic question, but rather a level headed, rational analysis of an impressively outlier 17 year old.
Why Is Doncic Special?
At age 17, Doncic is already one of the best players for the best team in the best basketball league outside of the NBA. Playing for Real Madrid in Spanish ACB, Doncic is likely the team’s 3rd best player behind Sergio Llull and Gustavo Ayon. Among the 12 man rotation, here are his per 40 minute ranks:
Seeing that 6.5 would be the median, he rank as above average at everything. And this is a roster full of former NBA players, mostly in their primes (age in parentheses): Gustavo Ayon (31), Rudy Fernandez (31), Anthony Randolph (27), Jeff Taylor (27), Andres Nocioni (37), Othello Hunter (30). And that does not include best player Sergio Llull who is a former #34 overall pick likely good enough to play in the NBA if he wanted. Or Jaycee Carroll, an exceptionally skilled Utah State grad who did not have the physical tools to draw NBA interest.
Yet this 17 year old kid is average or better relative to these players at EVERY PHASE of the game. It is one thing to be a good professional player at age 17, but to also lack any notable weakness in the profile puts him on an entirely different level.
Doncic also has elite qualities, and it starts with his skill level. He has the vision and ball skills to run Real Madrid’s offense, and is also an elite shotmaker converting 56% 2P, 41.9% 3P, and 83.8% FT. If you append with his 16 y/o ACB + Euro samples his numbers become 59.5% 2P, 39.1% 3P, 78.4% FT. These are elite percentages for a medium volume scoring 16/17 year old, and he also has great passing ability as evidenced by his assist rate. By all indications, his skill, feel package is transcendent.
He supports his incredible skill level with a great physical profile. He is already 6’8″, and has a solid frame and athleticism. This may not sound impressive on its own, but most super skilled players are much smaller (i.e. Chris Paul) and often less athletic as well (Steve Nash, Steph Curry). His height should make it easy to translate his production to the NBA, and everything else is good enough such that there is no reason to fear that he may fail.
How Can Luka Be The Best Without Elite Athleticism?
The answer is simple– elite skill level is AT LEAST as important for upside as elite physical tools. Let’s take the example of Stephen Curry, who was so frail physically that he did not even draw major conference recruiting interest as a high school prospect. Then after nearly singlehandedly carrying Davidson to the Final 4, he still went just 7th in the NBA draft because his tools were so worrisome. He is the most polarizing example of outlier skill and poor physical tools, yet he won back to back MVP’s that were both deserved. This proves that an outlier skill level can yield elite upside with even a poor physical profile.
The polarizing example of outlier physical tools and poor basketball playing ability is Andrew Wiggins. He was the #1 RSCI recruit and was picked #1 in the draft, and in his 3rd season he is only performing at a replacement level. This proves that elite athleticism is not an automatic ticket to greatness when skill is lacking.
There are other examples of players with supreme physical profiles failing, as well as questionable physical profiles flourishing due to elite skill. I could list other examples, but these two alone are enough to disprove the notion that elite athleticism should be valued greater than elite skill. Further, they strongly suggest that skill level should be valued as the top input for upside valuation with athleticism being secondary.
One may counter that for every Curry success story, there are multiple Jimmer Fredette or Doug McDermott types who flop completely. But McDermott and Fredette had nothing resembling special skill level, they merely developed enough to dominate mid-major NCAA competition as 22 year olds– a common and trivial accomplishment. Their draft hype is a failure by NBA GM’s to identify the nuances between a commonly good skill level and outlier great. This may explain why scouts gravitate toward athleticism– because they actually can detect the nuances that separate the elite from the commonly good without any statistical expertise.
As we develop increasingly good analytics to help us predict skill level with greater confidence, we should increase the importance of skill as the most valuable input and decrease the value placed on athleticism.
Doncic vs LeBron
LeBron is the gold standard for prospects in the lottery era, and it is sacrilegious to suggest that any young player may be on his level. At this point you may be thinking that his skill cannot possibly be that far ahead of LeBron, because LeBron is amazing at everything which is why he is the best.
But is LeBron really THAT skilled? He is a career 34% 3P 74% FT. His shooting is average, and there is no evidence that his passing touch is special either. He nevertheless makes a big impact with his passing because he has great vision as well as feel for when to attack vs. dish.
LeBron’s transcendent physical profile paired with great vision and IQ overpowered him as a player, and just having an decent skill level was enough to make him arguably the greatest player ever.
To compare him to Doncic, let’s consider the following:
- Is LeBron’s physical profile more transcendent than Doncic’s skill level?
- Is LeBron’s vision and IQ for an elite athlete rarer than Doncic’s height for a point god?
- Is LeBron’s skill level a stronger “weakness” than Doncic’s athleticism?
For #3 I would say no because LeBron’s shooting splits prove that his skill level is not special, and Doncic is already a decent athlete at age 17. For #2, it is hard to measure vision and basketball IQ but Doncic is approximately Magic Johnson’s height which is as tall as point gods have been made thus far. Again, no seems to be a reasonable response.
The challenging question is #1, mostly because it is difficult to isolate Doncic’s skill level from his statistics which are still a relatively small sample. And if his performance declines this season and then he does not improve at age 18, his skill level will seem less transcendent. But based on what he does so far, it is not clear that any prospect has a much better skill level than Doncic.
Granted, the top point guards such as Curry and Chris Paul are more skilled than Doncic, but that’s about as relevant as Shaq or Dwight Howard having physical tools superior to LeBron. Because Doncic’s physical profile is so far ahead of Curry and CP3 and LeBron’s skill level is so far ahead of Shaq and Dwight, it doesn’t really detract from the transcendent quality of either player involved.
Ultimately the answer to question #1 is inconclusive. And with my earlier argument that transcendent athleticism does not yield greater upside than transcendent skill, there is no clear reason to rate LeBron as the superior prospect. This is especially true without the hindsight bias of LeBron’s greatness, as he did not have any pre-draft statistical sample validating his greatness like Doncic does.
Of course this is all intuitive analysis from afar. I could be wrong, and perhaps if they were compared side by side during the draft process LeBron would clearly outshine Doncic. But it is extremely easy to argue that LeBron waffle crushes most #1 picks– you cannot assemble any compelling logical argument that Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons, or Andrew Wiggins are superior talents.
I am not arguing that Doncic is necessarily superior, rather that he appears to be in the ballpark of LeBron’s greatness. I have no idea which one actually should be rated higher. But how many other prospects can you say that for? That is the best possible assessment for a prospect, as no teenager will ever be conclusively better than teenage LeBron.
What About Ricky Rubio?
As Doncic hype builds, Ricky Rubio will be a popular cautionary tale for getting too excited over Doncic’s young production. Rubio was also a great ACB player at a young age. At 8 months younger than Doncic, he posted a similar PER (18.5 vs 18.7) and then at 4 months older he had a superior PER at 20.5 as well as more pace adjusted points per 40 (17.0 vs 16.2) all while winning ACB defensive player of the year and breaking statistical models with elite steal and assist rates.
If Ricky Rubio can do all of that and not even become an NBA all-star, am I not a psychotic maniac for comparing Doncic to LeBron? Nope, I am not!
A big key of both Doncic and LeBron’s profiles are that they have no clear weaknesses, which is awesome for players with such overpowered strengths. Rubio, however had one glaring weakness that he could not put the biscuit in the basket. During his 18 y/o DPOY season, he shot 39.1% inside the arc with the next worst 2P% on his team among regulars being Jan Jagla at 48.3%. Not only did he have a weakness, but he had an scary outlier bad weakness.
This weakness has translated to his NBA play, as Rubio simply cannot score against NBA defenses. His passing and defense have been as great as his ACB sample implied, but there is an upper bound to the defensive impact a 6’4″ player can make to counterbalance an inability to score. Thus while he was an attractive gamble that could have panned out better, it should not be a surprise to anybody that he never came close to blossoming into a top 10 player.
The counter would be that statistics do not prove that Doncic is bereft of weakness. Maybe in spite of his good but not great rebound, steal, and block rates, he proves to be an awful defensive player. Let’s go as far as to say he is as bad defensively as James Harden. Is that really a terrifying flag? Harden is shorter and showed much less skill at the same age, yet is performing at an MVP level in spite of the mixtapes of bad defense that exist. If significant defensive flags for Doncic arise prior to his draft, it would diminish his value as a LeBron type prospect but he would still be the clear choice at #1 overall.
Doncic’s strengths are so special that he needs some extremely negative gravity to preclude him from becoming great. Even if he has a poor work ethic, Tracy McGrady is an example of natural super talent with poor work ethic and he still had an excellent prime.
Perhaps I am missing some key perspective here, but I cannot envision a single rational reason why Doncic may fail to become great. The best argument against is that he is 17 years old and there is plenty of time for things to go wrong. But that can be said for any prospect, and there is nothing specific to his profile that inspires a sliver of doubt for his ability to achieve greatness. At this juncture, all signs point toward piles and piles of upside and not much downside.
It may seem like a hyperbolic question to ask if a 17 year old could be the greatest prospect of all time, but the same narrative arose for LeBron at the same age. So why not Doncic? It is because the people who drive the consensus wrongfully give athleticism a significant edge over skill and statistical production, when the latter is likely more important.
And the fact of the matter is that we NEED to ask ourselves hyperbolic questions about prospects to gauge how they should be valued. Most of the value of draft picks is packed into the upside tail, and any analysis should start with whether the answer to a hyperbolic question might be yes.
If the Chicago Bulls have the opportunity to trade Jimmy Butler for the Nets 2018 1st round pick, the difference between Doncic being in the ballpark of LeBron vs an average top 3 pick makes the difference at to whether they should accept a trade with the 2018 Nets pick as a centerpiece. The difference between expecting an average #1 and a possible LeBron type prospect immensely swings the value of that pick. My take is that it would be a clear mistake to pass up a 5-10% chance of Doncic for 2.5 more underpriced years of Butler based on signals thus far.
It is possible that I am wrong, as I have only watched Doncic sparingly in highlights and he is only 17. Also it is possible that I will change my position between now and the 2018 draft, as there will be an abundance of new information to have a clearer grasp on his goodness. But based on current information, it is not an absurd question to ponder whether Luka Doncic is a transcendent prospect on the level of LeBron James, and there is no clear logical reason why he cannot blossom into the greatest basketball player we have ever seen.