Deep into the third quarter of a game against Orlando Magic earlier this month, the Dallas Mavericks were defending with a 13-point lead when they snatched the ball and quickly transitioned. Four blue shirts flitted forward downcourt, outnumbering Orlando’s lone defender, until Luka Dončić collected the ball inches from the rim. The best young baller in the world had a simple lay-up before him, but passed it up for the spectacular play: attempting a backwards, no-look bounce pass to where he thought Maximillian Kleber would be arriving. Kleber, however, had stopped running and the pass found no one at all. Within 30 seconds, the lead would shrink to seven points.
For some athletes, the indignity of such an elementary mistake might make them think twice before attempting the same thing again. But that is not how Luka Dončić plays basketball. In his short time in the NBA, one of his shining qualities is his audacity. He goes about his work with joy and deep conviction in his ability, which translates to him being unafraid of expressing his talent to the fullest with the most difficult, outrageous passes and shot attempts. A few minutes into the fourth quarter, he rectified his mistake with an identical pass, this time with the added difficulty of being airbound. “You’re constantly talking to players about not jumping in the air and trying to make decisions,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said afterwards, laughing. “I mean, this guy defies a lot of logic when it comes to conventional coaching theories.
“That’s why we give him the ball and let him go.”
For the past two and a half seasons, watching Dončić take the ball and go has become one of the most exhilarating sights in sports. He is 6ft 7in with a sturdy frame, but his talents are delicate and pure. He uses his court sense and bottomless toolbox of trickery to humiliate defenders and executes passes that most cannot even see in their dreams. Despite using the ball for so many of the Mavericks’ possessions and deciding the final minutes of most games himself, he is paradoxically unselfish, constantly seeking out teammates and making their lives easier by creating space for them.
Since his arrival on US soil in 2018, coaches and pundits have frequently described Dončić as playing the game at his own pace. He does, but sometimes the implication is that his guile makes up for his complete dearth of athleticism. Dončić is some distance from the optimum shape he may one day achieve, but his footwork, agility and the sheer control he has over his body as he drives into the paint to beat his man, accelerating and decelerating at will, is a supreme athletic feat in itself.
The starting point for Doncic’s 2020-21 season truly came six months ago in the Disney World bubble when his vicious bullying of quality teams culminated in the masterpiece of his NBA career so far: a 43-point, 17-rebound, 13-assist eruption against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 4 of the Western Conference quarter-finals, a manic display punctuated with a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.
After two years of filling up the stat sheet for a team that generally draws a fraction of the attention as the NBA’s coastal goliaths, this was the moment his name burst into the stratosphere. He is now a two-time All-Star starter, a member of last year’s All-NBA first team and, on Wednesday, logged his 33rd career triple-double, landing him joint 11th on the all-time list at just 22 years old. He is also now the undeniable leader of the Mavericks. By the start of this season, he was being tabbed as an early MVP favorite.
Things have not exactly gone to plan. Dončić was caught out by the decision to start the new season in November and entered it out of shape. His first step was slower, his three-pointer “couldn’t make it in the pool”, in his words. As he quickly worked back to step, the team itself collapsed. Four key players – Jalen Brunson, Josh Richardson, Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith – were sidelined due to Covid protocols, while Kristaps Porziņģis struggled with his form and movement on his return from meniscus surgery. By the first week of February, Dallas were 14th of 15 teams in the Western Conference standings and on a six-game losing streak that dropped their record to 9-14.
This was all an unfamiliar feeling for Dončić. Throughout his career, he has always been a winner. He was crowned EuroLeague MVP for Real Madrid at 19, and was a leading contributor in Slovenia’s EuroBasket victory the year before, following a youth spent mercilessly battering his contemporaries in Ljubljana. After a blowout loss to Utah Jazz at the end of January, he sounded helpless. “Terrible,” he said. “I never felt like this. We’ve got to do something, because this is not looking good. We’ve got to step up and just talk to each other and play way better than this. It’s mostly effort.”
The struggles have presented Dončić in a different light on and off the court. He demonstrated how complete his game is by smartly adjusting to his reality at the beginning of the season. To make up for his slower first step, he began to take a dramatically higher volume of mid-range shots and found immediate success. His defense, often singled out as a weakness, has continued to chart improvement. As critics still questioned his form, he embarked on a personal record of 14 consecutive games with at least 25 points.
Criticism will always follow success and the self-awareness with which Dončić has navigated increased scrutiny this year underlines why he has reached these heights so soon in the first place. Even in a world of vicious armchair analysts across social media, there is no harsher critic of Dončić than himself. His explanations to unconvinced reporters that he couldn’t possibly be playing well if his team is losing, even as he’s been nearly averaging a triple-double on the season, have become a common trope. And when his frequent lobbying of referees came under fire, rather than responding defensively when the subject was raised, he owned up to it and pledged to stop. He has mostly kept quiet since.
Since the middle of February, the tide has slowly turned for the Mavericks as the team has shaken off Covid and all the complications it has wrought on their season. Dallas have now won 10 of their last 12 games, propelling themselves from 14th to eighth and into the thick of the playoff hunt. It’s also brought the re-emergence of Dončić’s three-pointer, which now looks as polished than ever. He is taking smarter shots and veering more to his favorite spot on the left, but remains capable of exploding from any part of the court and at any time: as the Boston Celtics learned the hard way when he drained a pair of three-pointers in the final 17 seconds to win the game. A grueling second-half slate of 38 games in 68 days will test Dončić’s fitness to its limits, but the weeks, months and years to come are squarely on his side.