Leading up to the NBA Draft on June 21 we'll be making 10 different arguments for the Bulls to select a certain player. We began the series with Arizona center Deandre Ayton, and now move on to the top foreign prospect in the class.
The NBA is changing at a rapid pace. Welcome back from the rock you’ve been living under the last 5 years, we’re glad to have you. We could reel off dozens of those changes, but let’s focus on passing and pace.
This past NBA season 23 teams averaged 22 or more assists per game. As recent as 2014 that number was 12 teams. Go back a decade to 2004 and that number drops to eight. Assist numbers are on the rise; the league average per team was 23.2 assists per game, the highest it had been since 1995 (23.5), and that number has increased each of the last five seasons.
Teams are making more shots but they’re doing it at a quicker rate, too: the league average pace has increased each of the last eight seasons, and the average team last season played at 97.3 possessions, the league’s fastest mark since 1991 (97.8). NBA.com’s statistics only go back to 2015-16, but consider last year 14 teams averaged 18 or more transition points per game; just two years ago that number was six.
And this passing isn’t strictly a point guard trend. Last season an NBA-record 54 players handed out 4.0 assists or more, and an NBA-record 86 players handed out 3.0 assists or more since the expansion to 30 teams. Are you getting the picture? Ball handlers and passers are as important as they’ve been in a long, long time, especially if they can push successfully in transition.
Luckily for the Bulls, should they defy the Lottery odds and select first, there’s a 19-year-old dominating in Spain who fits the bill exactly.
Luka Dončić has been in the basketball spotlight since 2012, when the 13-year-old (not a typo) signed a five-year deal with Real Madrid. Less than 3 years later he became the youngest player to debut for the club, the same year his current fellow draftees were ending their sophomore years of high school.
Fast forward a year to 2017 and Dončić was already making history. He was unanimously named the EuroLeague Rising Star, given to the league’s best player under 22; Dončić was 18. He was the youngest player in league history to win MVP of the Round honors (essentially Player of the Week), and he did it four different times. He won the award four more times this season, and he’s certainly in contention for EuroLeague MVP honors, which is unheard of for a teenager.
His most impressive run may have been the summer before this season, at EuroBasket 2017, when he and Heat point guard Goran Dragic led Slovenia to an unlikely gold medal. In the process Dončić scored 27 points against Kristaps Porzingis and Latvia in the quarterfinals and nearly triple-doubled (11 points, 12 rebounds, 8 assists) in a semifinals win over the Gasol twins and Spain. Dončić, all of 18 years old, averaged 14.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists; he finished 13th in the tournament in efficiency (18.7), a tick below a Finnish power forward named Lauri Markkanen (18.8) – Markkanen dropped 24 against the eventual champion Slovenians.
Back to what he’s done this year, his PIR – the EuroLeague’s measure of efficiency – is 21.73, nearly two points higher than No. 2, the league’s leading scorer Alexey Shved. He’s averaging 16.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists in just 26 minutes per game. The 6-foot-8 guard has natural passing abilities and uses his still-growing frame to get inside and finish at the rim, converting more than 58 percent of his two-pointers this season. His 3-point numbers dipped, but his true shooting percentage (FG/3FG/FT) improved from .588 last season to .603 this season. He’s become a true scoring threat, allowed to flourish in part because teammate Sergio Llull missed essentially the entire year recovering from a torn ACL. His field-goal attempts more than doubled and he also increased his assist numbers.
He’s not super-quick or agile, and while his 3-point shot looks good it hasn’t yielded spectacular results. There are certainly question marks about how he’ll defend at the next level, and Real Madrid was more efficient defensively without him on the floor. His jumper can and will improve at the next level, and like all rookies he's still growing into his body. The defense could be considered a concern, but placed in the right system he could flourish – his IQ will serve him well where his athleticism can’t on that end.
It can be difficult to project how a prospect will acclimate to the NBA. Some guys simply can’t make the transition, for one reason or another, after illustrious careers at the preps and collegiate levels. That won’t be the case with Dončić, who has already dominated the second best league in the world, and he’s doing so at 19 years old. He won’t turn 20 until after next year’s NBA All-Star Break. He’s playing every night against 20-somethings, and he’s been doing it for three years. He’ll need to learn a new playbook like all rookies, but the acclimation process will be as smooth as any prospect’s in quite some time.
The Bulls need playmakers. Desperately. It’s as simple as that. Kris Dunn averaged 7.3 assists per 36 minutes and 12.3 drives per game, the latter of which ranked 15th in the NBA (and more than Jimmy Butler). He distributed, and his lack of finishing at the rim aside, proved to be a fine facilitator of the offense. As far as playmaking goes, Dunn is a valuable one. That’s about it.
Zach LaVine averaged 26.4 passes and 14.8 shots per game. Not ideal. Cameron Payne may prove to be more valuable than once thought of, and Denzel Valentine was an underrated asset both in transition, attacking the basket and passing with the second unit. But we’re discussing a rare talent of passing acumen, variety scoring and maturity. The ball doesn’t stick when the Slovenian is on the floor, and he automatically improves a Bulls offense that ranked 17th in transition points (16.7) and 28th in efficiency. Take the most dynamic offensive player in the class, insert him into the lineup and watch Lauri Markkanen find more open looks. Watch LaVine find more transition success (he shot 45 percent, 10th on the team). Watch the rest of the offense open up with fluidity, led by Dončić's ability to known when to distribute and when to attack.
And don’t worry about the Bulls already having a point guard. Dunn and Dončić can co-exist. The more ball handlers, the better. Ideally Fred Hoiberg would want more 3-point shooting in his backcourt, but the Bulls also aren’t prepping for the Eastern Conference Finals this offseason. Find the best player, add him to your team. And in a league where passing, pace and playmaking (alliteration!) are reigning supreme, it’s impossible to pass up a talent – and a more-or-less sure thing – like Luka Dončić.