After two straight sub-.500, playoff-free seasons, the Dallas Mavericks will enter training camp later this month hoping to make a significant leap up the Western Conference standings. Much of that ambition stems from the arrival of Luka Doncic, the highly touted rookie playmaker the Mavs imported in a draft-night deal with the Atlanta Hawks.
One of the most decorated international prospects ever to enter the league, Doncic hits the NBA bearing the burden of great expectations, thanks to the Mavs’ heavy wager — a top-five-protected 2019 first-round draft pick — that he’ll be a transformative figure for a franchise in need of a revival. But life in the NBA tends to be hard on rookies, no matter their talent or pedigree; when you’re coming off your worst season in 20 years, it would seem reasonable to pump the brakes on projecting just how big a difference the new guy’s going to make, and just how soon a 19-year-old will start looking like a savior.
The Mavericks, it seems, are going the other way. Here’s head coach Rick Carlisle — not exactly a man given to unduly glowing commentary or overt hyperbole — offering his first impressions of Doncic, according to Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News:
Carlisle doesn’t make predictions about players or seasons. But he did give a hint about what fans might expect from Doncic in his rookie season.
“Off of what I’ve seen over the last two days,” Carlisle said last week, “anybody who doesn’t jump on season tickets now is going to sorely regret it later, that’s all I’ll say.”
Maybe you’re thinking that’s a bit much, or a gentle attempt by the coach to help generate buzz and put more butts in seats after a pair of disappointing campaigns. (For what it’s worth, the Mavericks have ranked fourth and fifth in the league in total home attendance over the past two seasons, even amid all the losing.) But Carlisle’s not the only one offering eyebrow-raising raves about everything Doncic might be capable of doing.
The rookie’s also got another big fan — a really big one — who knows a little something about the challenge of making the transition from Europe and putting the franchise on his back. From an interview on Dallas sports talk radio station 105.3 The Fan:
“I’m really liking what I’m seeing,” said Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki. “He’s incredible with the ball for a big guy. He’s unbelievable in pick-and-roll play. His court vision is already unbelievable. I couldn’t believe what I saw from a 19, 20-year-old. He’s a good shooter when he has time and I think he’s going to be great for us for a long, long time. […]
“He’s an incredible talent. His court vision and passing for his size, at his age, is something I’ve never seen in my 20 years.”
Is he better than you when you were 19?
“Oh yeah. I could shoot a little bit, but I never had the court vision … the savviness that he brings to the game. Just the way he already reads the pick-and-roll … all the stuff like Chris Paul and these guys do … He’s going to be fun to watch, especially with bigs like DeAndre [Jordan] and Dwight [Powell] rolling to the rim … He’s going to pick defenses apart and it’s going to be fun to watch.”
Setting aside the big German’s attempt at onedownsmanship — after a truncated getting-to-know-you rookie season, Dirk shot 46 percent from the field, 38 percent from 3-point land and 83 percent from the foul line at age 21, which seems like a touch above “I could shoot a little bit” — Nowitzki’s first-blush scouting report largely dovetails with what those who have tracked Doncic’s career overseas have been saying all along: that the 6-foot-8, 220-pound teenager doesn’t just have a chance to be special someday, but that, after playing professionally since age 16 against grown men, he could be incredible right off the bat.
In the days before June’s 2018 NBA draft, Doncic wasn’t making the media rounds in New York like his fellow about-to-be-draftees; he was back in Spain, leading Real Madrid to the Liga ACB championship. That victory capped an incredible year for Doncic, one that saw him win:
• Domestic and EuroLeague championships with Real Madrid;
• Most Valuable Player honors in the ACB, the EuroLeague regular season and the EuroLeague Final Four;
• And a gold medal with Slovenia at the 2017 EuroBasket tournament, teaming with Miami Heat point guard Goran Dragic to take down a bunch of top European talent and players from NBA teams while performing well enough individually to make the All-Tournament Team.
Though he won’t turn 20 until February, Doncic has already played nearly 4,000 total regular- and postseason minutes in Spain’s top league and in the EuroLeague, the highest-caliber basketball competition in the world outside the NBA. He spent much of last season as the top scorer and playmaker of a team that had lost star guard Sergio Llull to a torn ACL, and averaged 20.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 1.6 steals per 36 minutes of floor time.
With the extremely major caveat that European statistics and production do not translate on a one-to-one basis at the NBA level, here’s the list of dudes who’ve put up 20-7-6-1 per-36 in the NBA, per Basketball-Reference.com: LeBron James, Larry Bird, Russell Westbrook, Magic Johnson, Nikola Jokic, Alvan Adams, James Harden and Michael Jordan.
Again, to be clear: I am not suggesting that Doncic cleaning up like that in Europe at age 19 means he’s going to hit those sorts of numbers in the NBA at age 20. But if you’re looking for a quick explanation of why the Mavs might be pretty excited about what they’ve got on their hands, a level of production that made him arguably the best player of any age in Europe last season isn’t a bad place to start!
“I’ve been professional since I was 15,” Doncic told reporters in Brooklyn on draft night. “I played against EuroLeague stars, against ex-NBA players. I had four or five players on my team that played in the NBA. They’ve been talking about the NBA to me a lot through this year. So I think I’m prepared.”
Doncic combines small-ball-power-forward size, a pure point guard’s feel, vision and playmaking patience, and a veteran’s understanding of how to manipulate the geometry of the court, all before he’s 20 years old. He appeared, heading into draft night, to be as equipped as any rookie we’ve seen in years to play the game at his speed, rather than struggle to catch up to the tempo everybody else is setting. If he can keep that same pace in Dallas — and, judging by the comments of Carlisle and Nowitzki, the early returns are positive — then maybe there’s no reason to pump the brakes on just how special Luka Doncic can be. Maybe all that’s left to do is throw him the keys, let him hit the gas, and see whether he — and DeAndre Jordan, Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes and that old German guy — can take this year’s Mavericks farther than anyone might expect.
More NBA coverage:
– – – – – – –
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Dez apparently caught using burner account
• Mexico’s offensive chant just won’t go away
• MLB Power Rankings: Astros have eyes on Red Sox
• Boxing legend considering White House run