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June 19, 2018

2018 NBA Draft: Should Sixers consider trading up for Euro phenom Luka Doncic?

Throughout most of the last year, Luka Doncic has become something of a public darling and at the very least a contender to be the No. 1 overall draft pick this Thursday. It's not hard to see why if you take a look at what he has accomplished — he has been a leader of a Real Madrid team that won the EuroLeague, and became the youngest ever player to capture EuroLeague MVP and EuroLeague Final Four MVP awards.

But as we have moved into the final leg of the 2018 NBA Draft journey, Doncic has become less of a lock to be the top-two guy he was presumed to be. The Suns have turned their attention to Arizona center DeAndre Ayton, the Kings are doing Kings-like things, and there has yet to be a report that any team near the top of the draft is locked in on Doncic as their guy.

What's more, there appear to be opportunities to trade up into the top five, should the Sixers have any interest in doing so. The Memphis Grizzlies are reportedly open to dealing the No. 4 pick, where Doncic could easily fall if things don't break right for him at the top of the draft.

So what does that mean for the teenage sensation, and how should the Sixers respond? I'm glad you asked.

What does Doncic bring to the table?

To put it lightly, Doncic is one of the most productive players to come out of overseas basketball in... really ever? He has won awards usually reserved for veterans of the sport, been afforded responsibility that few young players ever are, and most importantly, he has excelled in a high-volume, high-expectations role for one of the most prominent teams outside of the United States.

After becoming Madrid's youngest ever debutant toward the end of their 2014-15 season, Doncic has since established himself as one of European basketball's best players while most of his American peers were still in high school. He is nominally a point guard but has been a do-it-all force in the Spanish ACB and EuroLeague, averaging 14.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game on 45.6 percent shooting from the field in his final European season.

The numbers, especially in the assists department, do not do a good enough job underlining Doncic's talent as a passer and playmaker. His vision is extraordinarily advanced for his age, and he's an especially gifted player out of the pick-and-roll. Any pass you would want someone to be able to make there — wrap passes, pocket passes, through the air or off the bounce — he's capable of executing at a high level.

Part of his success in this area, weirdly enough, is probably a product of his lack of top-tier athleticism. Without having a top speed or quickness gear to get by defenders on burst alone, Doncic has had to develop an array of hesitation and change-of-pace moves to get by. As a result, he has an advanced understanding of timing relative to a lot of other playmakers at his age, and can exploit small windows to generate open looks for his teammates.

Of course, that lack of top-end athleticism is one of the biggest red flags for Doncic and one of the reasons he is sliding behind less productive college players in the lead up to the draft. There are legitimate concerns about his ability to turn the corner and create separation once he's matched up with NBA-caliber athletes, especially because he's more of a playmaker than a go-to scorer or finisher. If you tighten the margins, logic suggests the degree of difficulty for Doncic will only increase.

That concern specifically won't be as big of a deal on the Sixers. Some teams are balking at Doncic as a franchise guy because of a disbelief he can be a primary initiator. I think that's completely legitimate, but in Philadelphia, you wouldn't be asking him to do anything of the sort. He would add a dynamism with the ball on the perimeter they don't have next to Ben Simmons, adding another great basketball thinker to the group.

As a shooter, you're projecting based on his form and the type of shots he's taking more than you are on his actual percentages. Doncic's reputation as a shooter (or at least as a projectable shooter) is perhaps a little stronger than it should be. He only managed to shoot 30.9 percent from three on about 4.8 attempts per game for Real Madrid last season, and in a span of 544 attempts over four years there he's made almost exactly a third of them, clocking in at 33.3 percent.

Context matters, of course. More than half those attempts came this past season, when the entire offense effectively ran through him. The degree of difficulty on a lot of his attempts is much different than the usual teenager as a result; Doncic was not shy about taking any number of shots off the dribble from the perimeter or mid-rangge, on top of the more typical assortment of spot-ups, off-movement looks, and catch-and-shoot plays you see young players try to master. A high degree of success shouldn't be expected across the board yet, and his free-throw numbers (80.1 percent on 500+ attempts) lend hope for the future.

In any case, the form is smooth, repeatable, and easy to envision being a point of strength down the line.

His athleticism concerns will impact Doncic on the defensive end too, though I tend to be less fixated in that department than maybe some others will. He has legitimately elite basketball IQ for his age, which tends to manifest on both sides of the ball, and at 6-foot-6 he should be able to deal with switches. You would essentially be asking him to guard the third toughest perimeter assignment on any given night, a task which he should be more than capable of doing.

But at what cost is it worth acquiring him?

Herein lies the rub — it is not exactly easy to acquire a top-five pick, which is what it's ultimately going to take to bring him to Philadelphia. The furthest he can probably make it before you lose the chance to trade up for him is probably No. 4, as Dallas would likely scoop him up with delight at No. 5 if given the chance.

Memphis has been rumored to be offering the No. 4 pick in exchange for veteran help and/or offloading the Chandler Parsons contract, so they're a natural suitor in the event the Sixers want to do this. But the Parsons part of the equation is a major, major problem for Philadelphia's big-picture plans and would completely change the landscape for this summer if they went through with a deal involving his contract.

Taking on Parsons would add $24 million to the books for 2018-19 and $25 million for 2019-20, numbers that would effectively end any hope of the Sixers competing for big-name free agents the next two summers. That's no small deal. The Sixers will be all but priced out of the "big fish" free agent market after next summer due to extensions already in place and future deals that are almost assuredly going to be signed (like the future extension for Simmons).

For a franchise that has spent a long time waiting and preparing for this free agency moment, it would be a bit of a bummer to punt on the chance this close to free agency. Pessimism has ruled the day in Philadelphia following the Bryan Colangelo fiasco, but the Sixers still have a tremendous story to sell LeBron James or Paul George on, regardless of what it might feel like post burner account scandal.

The Sixers, however, no doubt have a better pulse of the NBA room than I do or you do. If they feel their work has been undone to the point that it impacts their free agency plans, searching for another blue-chip talent is not the worst idea, even if it comes with the Parsons tax attached.

I can't necessarily make that leap in logic yet, and think the Sixers still have to approach this summer as if they have a chance at one or more of the big fish on the market.

Still, this represents a pretty strong backup plan if things have gone south, and one that may be more palatable to groups within the Sixers fanbase. Rather than putting more pressure on the Sixers to win right now, Doncic would represent more long-term upside and playmaking ability to supplement the high-end players already in place.

In the event we begin to talk about exchanging players and picks, that's where I think you run into a wall. If you're not taking on a contract and killing your free agent dreams, giving up players like, say, Robert Covington or Dario Saric along with draft assets is a tremendous risk. This might be killing your free agency chances and increasing the risk of things falling apart in one fell swoop — it's going to be hard to convince someone like LeBron James to join a group of all kids, and you place a much higher burden on said kids to become the stars you believe they can be.

I'm not sure there's a realistic trade scenario that would represent the right balance of future upside and risk. But never say never...

Just how interested are the Sixers in moving for Doncic specifically?

Over the last few days, the Sixers have been floated in several different rumors regarding trade-ups. The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor intimated the Sixers were trying to get Trae Young in for workouts while in the midst of trade discussions, GM candidate David Griffin claimed the Sixers were looking to move up for a top-five pick, and Sports Illustrated's Jake Fischer reported Tuesday morning that the Sixers were resisting adding players to any potential inquiries on said top-five picks.

The focus, I believe, is a little more narrow than that. Bryan Colangelo was a big believer in Luka Doncic, based on various discussions PhillyVoice had with front office and league personnel over the last year. Doncic was not an insignificant factor in the top-one protection the Sixers placed on the Lakers pick that was part of the Markelle Fultz trade, per multiple sources briefed on the situation.

The man at the top of the operation has obviously changed, and the Sixers have been a lot tighter with information in the aftermath of the Colangelo scandal, for obvious reasons. But it stands to reason that a team who tracked Doncic for years and made calculated, long-term decisions that factored his draft availability into them.

None of this will ultimately matter if the Sixers aren't willing to pay the price it will take to move up into that range. With Simmons and Embiid basically untouchable, the Sixers have a lot of interesting players but not necessarily a lot of trade headliners. Their own picks are no longer premium, and they remain gunshy about giving up too many future assets before their future begins to really crystallize.

But do not expect them to remain idle in spite of all this. There is a lot to love about Doncic alongside this Sixers core, and a more reasonable path toward acquiring him than there was at the beginning of this past season. The only shame, then, is that they have to turn to an interim GM to make these decisions instead of relying on a stable force to carry out the vision.

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