Anytime a player like that doesn’t go No. 1 in the draft, especially when that player comes in with the level of hype Doncic did (he had just won the EuroLeague MVP at 19), there’s fingerpointing at front offices. How did they miss on this guy?
In the case of the Suns (who had just hired Doncic’s international coach), multiple of sources around the league say Phoenix owner Robert Sarver pushed for Deandre Ayton, the in-state Arizona player (and, to be fair, he was on top of a lot, if not most, team draft boards).
The Kings are harder to pin down, Vlade Divac is well connected in Europe and had seen Doncic. So why pass? Tim MacMahon of ESPN told this story on The Woj Pod about Doncic (hat tip to Jesse Reed of Sportsnaut).
“My understanding is that [Divac] being so close to Luka and knowing his dad so well factored into their decision. Basically, he didn’t think a whole lot of Luka’s dad, and the whole like father like son … well … no, this is a different dude. You messed that one up, Vlade.”
The Kings will undoubtedly push back on this idea, and there’s certainly no way to prove this rumor. The Kings’ argument for their moves would be a respectable one: They had Marvin Bagley higher on their draft board — and he is a quality young big man (out right now with a fluke broken thumb) — plus they had a primary ballhandler they liked in De’Aaron Fox. From the outside, it is impossible to say what really drove the Kings’ decision, but it would not be the first time that personal feelings got in the way of smart basketball moves.
Even if you buy Sacramento’s reasoning, that doesn’t make this any less of a miss. They either underestimated Doncic or overestimated Bagley (who looks to be good but not on Doncic’s level). Also, having a player a team likes is a terrible reason to pass on the best player available even if they fill the same role. It’s the “we have Clyde Drexler so we’re not going to take Michael Jordan” issue. Talent wins in the NBA. Flat out. Draft the best player, get the most talent, and if a team ends up with too many players at one position or has overlapping skill sets, then make a trade from a position of strength.
Which is to say, MacMahon was right about this, “You messed that one up, Vlade.”
A discussion point on this draft for a future day: Do the Hawks get a pass for setting up the trade of Doncic that netted Atlanta Trae Young and the pick that became Cam Reddish? Young is a special talent as well, so it feels a little too early to make that call, but Doncic has looked the better player.