HELSINKI, FINLAND -- Goran Dragic scrolled through his iPhone smiling ear to ear.
"Let me show you a picture," Dragic said. "It's crazy."
The photo featured Dragic, then a youthful 21-year-old point guard prospect, and nine of his Union Olimpija teammates, hoisting the 2008 Slovenian League championship trophy. At the center of the photo was Sasa Doncic, a 34-year-old veteran forward gripping the stem of the cup as his teammates celebrated around him, confetti flying through the air.
In the foreground of the photo stood Sasa's nine-year-old son in a green Olimpija jersey, gold medal around his neck, beaming with joy. Surrounded by his local heroes in Ljubljana, Slovenia, a small nation of only 2 million, the young ball boy was captured in a moment of bliss. His name: Luka Doncic.
Over the next four years Doncic would agree to a five-year deal with European basketball power Real Madrid. Under the tutelage of Spanish greats like Sergio Llull, Sergio Rodriguez and Real Madrid head coach Pablo Laso, a 17-year-old Doncic would win Euroleague and ACB Rising Star awards the following season, playing a sizeable role for arguably the 31st best basketball team in the world.
Nine years after that joyous 2008 moment, Doncic now stands 6-8, 228 pounds. He's one day removed from donning a 2017 Eurobasket gold medal, and arguably the most accomplished 18-year-old European prospect of all time.
He's also a legitimate candidate to go No. 1 in the 2018 NBA draft, which no European perimeter player has ever done.
Doncic was raised on the hardwood, sweeping Slovenian gym floors at almost every one of his father's games and sneaking in as many halftime jumpers as he could. The godson of long-time NBA big man Rasho Nesterovic, Doncic had a basketball in his hands since he was seven months old. His father was a talented, creative and well-respected player in Slovenia, and on the court Doncic took after his old man with his crafty style of play and charisma. Well before Doncic even hit puberty, it was clear that he was different. The way he handled the ball, passed with precision and shot with touch and rotation caught the eyes of his coaches and peers.
"Even at that age you could see he had a great feeling for the ball like his dad," said Dragic, who played 109 official games with Sasa over the course of three seasons, spanning two clubs. "He would always sit under the basket. Every time at halftime when we came out from the locker room he would always be shooting the ball. I always have this memory."
Doncic first began playing organized basketball with his primary school team at Mirana Jarca in Ljubljana around age 7. When his father left Slovenian club Domzale for powerhouse Union Olimpija in 2007, Doncic went with him. Olimpija Basketball School coach, Grega Brezovec, was a longtime friend of Sasa and Doncic's mother, Mirjam Poterbin, and invited Doncic to practice with the 1999-born generation.
A skinny, happy-go-lucky eight-year old, Doncic was so dominant at his first Olimpija practice that the coaching staff moved him up to the 1996-born group only 16 minutes into the training session. After a full practice with the older kids, Doncic was then bumped up to the Olimpija selection team, where he'd develop over the course of the next few years, regularly competing against players three and four years his senior.
Due to league rules, the 8-year-old Doncic wasn't allowed to compete at the under-14 level, but he tore through his own age group and played a role off the bench on the under-12 team as well. Eager to spend as much time on the court as possible, Doncic would beg his parents to go practice with the older teams on his off days.
"I often told Luka, 'Tomorrow you are free -- be at home, play with your toys or something, you have to rest,'" said Jernej Smolnikar, Doncic's selection team coach from 2007 to 2011. "The next day at 12 his parents would call me saying, 'Please can Luka come to practice, he's begging to play.' His passion to compete was unbelievable."
By age 12 Doncic was well into his ascension to childhood prodigy status, dominating under-12 and under-13 tournaments in Slovenia and all across Europe. Then a 6-2 do-it-all combo guard with remarkable vision and a unique feel for the game, Doncic was a walking triple double who liked to organize the game yet was capable of scoring outbursts any time.
Doncic was more physically gifted and skilled than all of his peers, and many of his elders, but it was his mental makeup, competitive nature and incredible basketball instincts that impressed most at that age. Whether it was an innate characteristic or a product of growing up around the game, the Slovenian sensation was wired differently -- joyous and full of life, yet confident with a killer mentality. Quick outlet passes, behind-the-back finds in transition, perfectly timed skip passes over the top of the defense -- Doncic had all of the tricks, and the basketball savvy of a seasoned vet.
"He had this from the moment he was born," said Lojze Sisko, the director of Union Olimpija's youth program and Doncic's under-12 coach for his final season before leaving for Spain. "You can't learn this, what he was doing. No way you can teach some players or somehow give them this knowledge. It's impossible.
"The most unbelievable thing for me was how he can change his personality. He was always confident on the court. Always had a desire to win. Very focused on the court but when the match finished he was an amazing little boy. He was always smiling, joking with the kids. He had a magnetic personality at that age."
Doncic was invited by Real Madrid youth sports director Alberto Angulo to compete with the prestigious club in the Minicopa tournament, a junior version of the well-known Spanish competition, Copa Del Rey. Playing with a set of unfamiliar faces, Doncic shined for Real Madrid, scoring 20 points in the final versus rival Barcelona.
After his strong performance the interest between Real Madrid and Doncic heightened, as did the Slovenian's play when he returned back to Ljubljana. In April of 2012, the 13-year-old Doncic went off for 54 points (39 in the first half), 11 rebounds and 10 assists in the championship game of the under-13 Lido di Roma tournament, where he won MVP honors.
"In this moment I told someone that he reminded me of a young Drazen Petrovic," said longtime Olimpija basketball chief Srecko Bester. "He was a killer with a baby face. It was so easy for him."
Doncic's performance earned him a deal with Real Madrid, which didn't have many foreigners close to Doncic's age in the youth program at the time, aside from 1998-born Brazilian center and fellow draft prospect Felipe Dos Anjos. The Doncic family had several suitors all over Europe, but Real Madrid made the most sense given its strong development program, educational infrastructure and rich basketball history.
"It was hard, really hard, especially the first two, three months," Doncic said. "I didn't have my parents there. But I was connected with all the other players. I was 13 and I needed it to prepare for all of this now and I want to say thanks to God that I'm here now."
Doncic started to learn Spanish, adapt to the culture in Madrid and progress quite rapidly as a player. Real Madrid has incredible facilities for youth soccer and basketball prospects, and is arguably the most desirable landing spot for young athletes in all of Europe. Doncic took full advantage of the club's infrastructure, won MVP of the 2013 Minicopa and began to realize his long-term potential when he started producing against players three and four years older than him, just as he had done in Ljubljana.
Practicing with the senior team, Doncic soaked up every bit of information he could from Spanish legends like Llull and Rodriguez. Then he really broke out on during the 2015-16 season.
CSKA Moscow mainstay and former Euroleague defensive player of the year Kyle Hines remembers first seeing a 16-year-old Doncic on the personnel report as the Russian powerhouse prepared for a game against Real Madrid in January 2016.
"I looked at my scouting report and thought to myself, this kid is 16 years old?" Hines said.
With Llull, Real Madrid's star guard, out due to injury, Doncic was likely to play extended minutes. The CSKA coaching staff wanted to test the teenage Doncic defensively while forcing him to beat them from the perimeter on the other end. Expecting the young Slovenian guard to struggle with the magnitude of playing in a road Euroleague game, CSKA went under every ball screen, defending Doncic "Ricky Rubio style," as Hines explained.
Doncic made 3 triples in a two-minute, second-quarter stretch, finishing with 12 points and five rebounds in 13 minutes, proving to Hines and CSKA that his thirst for pressure existed even in the Euroleague. The same poise and confidence that characterized him at the youth level carried over to the second-best league in the world, and Doncic posted per-40-minute averages of 13.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 5.8 assists while shooting 61.8 percent from 2 and 37.3 percent from 3 in 51 ACB and Euroleague games that season.
After spending some of his 2016 summer in Santa Barbara with P3 Sports Science, a data-driven performance company that works with the NBA's top athletes, Doncic returned to Madrid even more physically mature. The 17-year-old made yet another jump in his physical and skill development, proving early on in the season that he deserved an increased role on an already loaded Real Madrid team.
"It was like the first practice, he came down the lane and dunked it out of nowhere," said former NBA lottery pick and 2016-17 Real Madrid newcomer, Anthony Randolph, who also played on the Slovenian national team as a naturalized citizen. "I was like, 'God damn, he's only 17? It was pretty amazing.'"
Randolph has played with some of the top international prospects in the last decade. Whether it's Ricky Rubio, Evan Fournier, or Danilo Gallinari, the former LSU standout has seen his share of high-level European talent, but none have accomplished what Doncic has at this age. While Rubio was a childhood sensation and FIBA youth monster characterized by no-look passes and electric transition play, he didn't have quite the Euroleague or ACB impact of Doncic. Gallinari averaged 14.9 points per game in 11 Euroleague games for Milano in 2007-08, but the majority of that came as a 19-year-old. At 18 Fournier was playing only 14 minutes per game in France Pro A.
"I don't want to give him a big head, but I think he's probably one of the best talents that I've ever seen, especially at his age," Randolph said. "It's unbelievable. Just for his size, the way that he handles the game, the way that he carries himself on and off the court. He's just so versatile. I mean, the kid can damn near average a triple double when he figures it out."
Doncic's production given his age is unprecedented. Playing half the season as a 17-year-old, he was the only player in the Euroleague last season to average at least 15 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per 40 minutes. Although he struggled in the Euroleague final four, Doncic carried a strong season into Eurobasket play, producing like a 10-year veteran for a Slovenian team that shocked all of Europe on its way to a gold medal win over Serbia.
In an Istanbul arena loaded with NBA scouts and executives, Doncic scored 27 points on 14 shots in the quarterfinals versus Kristaps Porzingis and Latvia. Two days later the 18-year-old went for 11 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in an upset win over Spain in the semifinals, shining in virtually every aspect against the likes of Rubio, Marc and Pau Gasol and an extremely talented Spain team. He went down with a sprained ankle injury in the third quarter of the gold medal match, but Doncic's entire nine-game Eurobasket performance will go down as one of the most impressive runs from a prospect in the event's history. Playing alongside one of his childhood idols in Dragic, Doncic regularly craved the spotlight, delivering late in games and playing with little worry in crunch time.
"For him it's natural," said Igor Kokoskov, Slovenian national team head coach and longtime NBA assistant. "He's fearless. He loves to compete. He loves to be on the biggest stage."
"I feel like I want to be the hero of the game, you know?" Doncic said. "Every time I wanted the ball in my hands, from the very beginning. I have missed some important shots before but you need to learn from this. You need to move on. If you have a nice game or a bad game, you will have a thousand more games."
He's handled the pressure-cooker that comes along with being a childhood prodigy with tremendous poise to this point, producing at an extremely high level against NBA-caliber talent. Very few "boy wonder" types live up to the usually-lofty expectations. Many fizzle out, peaking too early or falling victim to the hype. As has been the case since those early days with Union Olimpija, Doncic seems to be an exception.
"I've seen a lot of players, they get hyped and then they kind of lose control," said Dragic, who is mentoring the 18-year-old like Steve Nash mentored him 10 years ago in Phoenix. "It gets in their heads. In a few years you don't even hear from them anymore. I don't think that's going to happen with Luka."
The nine-year-old boy from Dragic's photo has evolved into Real Madrid's crown jewel, the pride of Slovenia and one of this year's top draft prospects. Over nine years after standing with his idols in Ljubljana and watching his father hoist the Slovenian league trophy, Doncic hobbled on one foot and gathered with teammates of his own in Istanbul. Dragic put the understudy on his back and paraded him through the arena, passing the torch to Slovenia's next star.
Between now and June, Doncic will be compared to the late ex-Yugoslavian legend Drazen Petrovic and touted as arguably the best international prospect ever many times. Scouts will flock to Madrid, exhaust every contact that they have in Spain and Slovenia and study his film dating back to that tiny gym one hour north of Venice. True Luka Doncic mania is just beginning for everyone else, but the journey from Ljubljana to Madrid has prepared him for what lies ahead.