Much was made of Dallas Mavericks beat reporter Tim MacMahon saying on ESPN colleague Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast that Sacramento Kings general manager Vlade Divac may have passed on Luka Doncic in the 2018 draft because he was not a fan of Doncic’s father and fellow Serbian, Sasa Doncic.
The comments came during a conversation that also included ESPN NBA draft analyst Jonathan Givony and former Mavericks player development coach Mike Procopio. It centered around how three teams could have passed on a transcendent European prospect who is already an MVP candidate in Dallas. The Phoenix Suns selected DeAndre Ayton first, Divac drafted Marvin Bagley second, and the Atlanta Hawks traded the No. 3 pick to Dallas in favor of taking Trae Young fifth and adding a future pick.
“Vlade, as close as he was to Luka, my understanding is they were honed in on Bagley by at least March, if not earlier than that, and my understanding is that him being so close to Luka and knowing his dad so well factored into their decision,” MacMahon said. “Basically, he didn’t think a whole lot of Luka’s dad, and then the whole like father, like son — well, I don’t know, this is a different dude. You messed that one up, Vlade.”
It is baffling that the Suns, who at the time employed Doncic’s Slovenian national team coach, Igor Kokoskov, and the Kings, whose front office was led by an Eastern European basketball god, both passed on Doncic, arguably the most accomplished international prospect in the history of the sport.
It is also difficult to believe that Divac passed on Luka because he was no fan of Sasa.
Even within that same conversation there was a contradictory theory. Givony agreed that it puzzled him to learn both the Suns and Kings had locked in on Ayton and Bagley so early in the draft process, perhaps even by the 2018 lottery, but that Divac and his advisors, who include fellow Serbian star Peja Stojakovic, “were just adamant about the fact that [Doncic] is not as good” and “just another guy.”
Maybe they believed Doncic was not as good because of his dad, who averaged two points over four games for the Yugoslavian national cadet team in 1991, when Divac was a standout on the men’s national team. But what the Kings have maintained publicly ever since that draft makes more sense.
Even before the 2018 draft, reports suggested Sacramento’s reservations about taking Doncic stemmed from a concern that his ball dominance would hinder rising star De’Aaron Fox’s development. Immediately after the draft, Divac told reporters, “Marvin is for us a better fit, a better player, and a great talent, so he’s the choice for us.” All of this falls in line with what Divac told ESPN’s Zach Lowe in March:
"I like Luka, but we didn't want to overload with players who — maybe they don't have the exact same characteristics, but if you want to develop the guys you have, you have to make sure they have room to develop."
This is obviously a mistake in retrospect. Doncic looks like a generational talent, and he could have found a way to coexist with Fox. Or, as Lowe reported, the Kings could have had the same foundation as Dallas does now had they not also prioritized Fox over potentially trading him for Kristaps Porzingis.
Even Divac conceded in January, “Luka is a great talent and obviously he is showing this year that talent. Obviously, he was more ready than any other kid in this class because he played pro in Europe for a few years, and it’s a great fit for Dallas.” He just thought Bagley had more upside, and as The Woj Pod discussion acknowledged, he was not alone. There were also reported concerns about everything from Doncic’s weight to his nightlife and whether or not he would provide medical records to the Kings.
Divac could have had more insight into those concerns than others. They may not be issues any longer, if they ever were, but hindsight is 20/20. Sacramento’s disinterest in Doncic also seems to be overblown. Per reports, there was internal debate about taking Bagley over Doncic, even in the days before the draft, and the Kings were scouting Doncic overseas between the lottery and draft. A photo from Divac’s office also appeared to reveal his draft board, with Ayton, Bagley and Doncic listed in order.
The biggest dagger in the “Divac doesn’t like Doncic’s dad” theory, though, comes from Kings play-by-play man Grant Napear, who dubbed it “irresponsible, embarrassing reporting! 100% untrue!” Why?
Bc I was with Vlade today and Luka's dad called. They were laughing about it and talking about how stupid it was. That's how I know! https://t.co/10bcIvhPS3
— Grant Napear (@GrantNapearshow) November 25, 2019
None of this excuses Divac’s decision, and it will not make Kings fans feel any better about watching Doncic’s rise, but it at least offers a strong counter to a narrative that would have warranted a new GM in Sacramento. That may be the case anyway, since Doncic’s accomplishments abroad made him the best bet in 2018, but at least Divac has a reason beyond evaluating prospects based on their fathers.
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