They say that he knows, already, what those cameras want, and when. When Luka Doncic came to Los Angeles last week with his Dallas Mavericks to face the Lakers, he was more than obliging for the waiting photographers at the pre-game shootaround, teeing up multiple passes for Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs’ elder statesman beginning his 21st season in the NBA.
The story everyone is after isn’t lost on him – one of the greatest European players of all-time passing the torch to the next generation, and to the player who hopes to set a new high bar for Europeans Stateside. At 19, Doncic is already canny and assured beyond his years, on and off the court.
Dallas and their owner Mark Cuban have bet hard on Doncic, trading up in the summer’s draft to acquire the Slovenian in exchange for guard Trae Young. Though Young, a sharp-shooting point guard out of college in Oklahoma, has put up a few three-point heavy big scores in early season, few doubt that the Mavs have taken a reasonable gamble.
The evidence already is that they have snared themselves something special for now, rather than just for the future. “You know, by the way that Luka plays,” says his German teammate Maxi Kleber. “You can see that he’s been a professional player for years now, playing with adults, against adults. I think this is not very new to him. Of course it’s a different style of basketball, but he’s adapted pretty well.”
The numbers back up Kleber’s assessment. Doncic averages 19.4 points on an excellent 46.3% shooting during his first nine NBA games, and his average of 4.6 assists is climbing, naturally enough considering his passing is one of the major elements that marks him out as something special.
On the penultimate day of October, he dropped 31 points on Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs. Put to Doncic this week that the last rookie that nailed those sort of numbers was Michael Jordan, his trademark cool slipped for a second. “It’s everything to me,” he admitted. “Michael Jordan is the best player ever to have played the game.”
A 14-point, 7 assist performance on that visit to face the Lakers and his childhood idol LeBron James, who gave him a signed jersey after the game, was preceded and followed by endorsement from The King, who believes that European youngsters are increasingly worthy of respect. “I think European players develop faster than American players,” said James. “He’s been in the pro development stage for how many years – since he was 15, so I don’t think this is intimidating to him. I’ve seen it with Cedi (Osman) last year in Cleveland.”
Somebody of James’ profile and status coming out and saying this could be indicative of a sea change in NBA attitudes towards Europeans. Notwithstanding exceptions like the legendary Nowitzki, the cliché of Europeans being ‘soft’ has endured for years. Back in 2015, when the New York Knicks picked Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis at four ahead of college prospects like Justise Winslow or Emmanuel Mudiay, the large contingent of Knicks fans in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center that night loudly booed the selection.
Porzingis, currently injured but now a bona fide superstar likely to sign a max extension with the Knicks next year, is far too well-mannered to bring it up, but part of him must have enjoyed ramming it down those doubters’ throats. The fact that Doncic hasn’t had to deal with anything similar shows that things have changed.
With that said, Doncic’s confidence makes you think he would have been able to cope. “I moved from Slovenia when I was 13,” he says, “so this was way easier for me.” If anything has been tough, it has been adapting from winning most weeks with Real Madrid – last season’s Euroleague winners, for whom he with the MVP and the Final Four MVP – to being part of a developing side which is going to take its share of knocks. “For me, it’s hard,” he says. “I’m a person who gets really upset if we don’t win.”
That sense of confidence has the potential to be an issue as well, with the click not quite there yet with highly-paid Mavs veterans like DeAndre Jordan and Wes Matthews. He might be ready to be the best player in this emerging team, but whether they are ready to accept him as such is a different question.
Even if he doesn’t have elite athleticism –“I’m trying to work on it,” he says tersely – nobody will be able to hold back the Doncic tide for long. “Luka is a super-talented player with so many skills,” said Kleber, “but it’s kind of early because he’s only played a couple of games in the NBA. He has the talent to be one of the best, if not the best European player ever. My opinion is that he doesn’t have a limit. Luka can do whatever.”
Part of it could be changing the perception of Europeans in the NBA for good. That, as much as fulfilling his own potential and eventually filling the void in the Mavericks’ hearts when Nowitzki finally hangs up his sneaks, would be a worthy legacy.
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