NBA

Why the Kings and Suns Passed on Luka Doncic in the NBA Draft

Through just one and a half seasons, Luka Doncic has established himself as one of the most talented players in the NBA. Before the coronavirus pandemic interrupted basketball, he averaged 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 8.7 assists per game — truly elite numbers, especially for a player in his second year.

The only real comparisons to Doncic’s dominance right out of the gate are superstar players like LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Zion Williamson. Unsurprisingly, all of those players were No. 1 draft picks. Doncic, however, dropped to the No. 3 spot. Let’s look at how the 2018 NBA draft played out, as well as its lingering consequences.

 The 2018 NBA draft

The Atlanta Hawks drafted Doncic with the third pick of the 2018 NBA Draft. Per a pre-arranged deal, the Hawks traded him to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for the No. 4 pick, Trae Young, as well as a 2019 protected first-round pick.

That decision doesn’t exactly look so great for the Hawks now, who would probably take Doncic 10 times out of 10 if they could redo the draft. Yet the real stunner is that two teams, the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings, passed on Doncic before it was even Atlanta’s turn to pick.

In retrospect, both of those teams are surely kicking themselves for whiffing on Doncic. Instead, the Suns ended up with center Deandre Ayton, and the Kings with power forward Marvin Bagley, both talented players but nowhere near Doncic’s level of value.

Why Luka Doncic dropped to No. 3 in the draft

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So how exactly did two teams manage to so grossly underestimate Doncic’s NBA potential? A number of factors were at play. To begin with, teams remain somewhat wary about using high draft picks on European players. The feeling is that it’s more difficult to predict their crossover success, as compared to college prospects.

In Doncic’s case, however, that shouldn’t have been a factor. After all, the guy won the Euroleague MVP — and was the youngest player ever to do so. He’d also been playing competitively alongside fully grown men from a time when most NBA prospects were still in AAU programs.

Going into the 2018 draft, there was also some question about Doncic’s athleticism and three-point shooting. It’s true that Doncic doesn’t have the chiseled body or huge vertical leap of many of his peers, but his on-court intelligence more than makes up for any such deficiencies.

As for his three-point shooting, Doncic currently has a career average of 32.2%. While that number is slightly lower than league average, Doncic is also taking a whopping 8.0 long-distance shots per game. Assuming he can continue improving his shot selection, he should be more than capable of morphing into a dangerously accurate three-point shooter.

Consequences for the Suns and Kings

The Suns and Kings will likely continue to feel the repercussions of their oversight for years to come. Even in the short-term, the decision not to draft Doncic has altered both franchises. The Sun’s general manager at the time of the 2018 draft was Ryan McDonough. Just a few short months later — before the 2018 season had even kicked off — McDonough was fired.

It’s not clear that that decision had anything to do with Ayton, per se, but in hindsight it certainly casts doubt on McDonough’s ability to have made the best possible draft choice. The Kings, on the other hand, ended up rewarding Vlade Divac, the GM who selected Bagley. But that decision was likely based more on the improved performance of two of Divac’s earlier draft picks.

Instead, former Kings coach Dave Joerger seemed to take the fall for the Bagley selection. Joerger essentially owned up to Sacramento’s mistake. As CBS Sports reports, he said, “Perhaps there was an idea that there was a [low] ceiling on [Luka]. I don’t see it, unfortunately for us.” Whether he was fired for not speaking up at the time, or for questioning Divac’s authority later on, remains a mystery.