Luka Doncic’s superstar emergence — and the burden of building around him

The Mavericks waived Facundo Campazzo to clear roster space to sign former All-Star point guard Kemba Walker. As the NBA’s winter trade market approaches, Dallas has been exploring avenues to gain added ball handling and creation ability behind Mavericks star Luka Doncic and combo guard Spencer Dinwiddie, sources told Yahoo Sports. The Mavericks are looking to fill the gap that Jalen Brunson left in Dallas’ lineup when he spurned the Mavs for New York in free agency following a sprint to the Western Conference finals. Now, the Mavericks’ four-game slide has dropped Doncic and Co. to 9-10 and, at present, out of this season's postseason picture altogether.

In truth, Campazzo was never a likely solution to Dallas’ Brunson-sized problem. The veteran point guard waited at home in Argentina as the summer came and went and his next NBA opportunity hadn’t materialized. It wasn’t until midway through October that Dallas offered a one-year, non-guaranteed minimum contract to rejoin his former Real Madrid teammate, Doncic, as a break-in-case-of-emergency reserve. Campazzo has played just 52 minutes over eight games this season. Now the alarms are ringing to the point Dallas is giving Walker a look instead.

Campazzo always represented more of Doncic’s past than his current season or his future. A familiar face so far from home, much like that of Goran Dragic, a potential acquisition whom Mavericks personnel discussed at length in recent transaction cycles, sources said, and a player Dallas fans have longed to see in uniform.

Campazzo was there, only nine games into Doncic’s career with Real Madrid, when the 16-year-old caught the veteran’s attention playing against Campazzo’s own Murcia team in December 2015. With just five points, four rebounds and four assists in 22 minutes of action, a wiry Doncic and his boyish grin held the poise of a seasoned professional. He bounced the ball to his own rhythm. Doncic came off the bench for one of Europe’s superpowers, always drawing raucous crowds across Liga ACB, and delivered subtle body blows only he could have landed on Real Madrid’s opponent. A no-look here, a stealthy drive-and-kick there.

Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic passes around Milwaukee Bucks' Brook Lopez during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Luka Doncic passes around the Bucks' Brook Lopez during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

“He played great defense, had a lot of energy, a lot of talent to shoot, to pass the ball, to make his teammates better. He played his first game like he used to do that normally,” Campazzo told Yahoo Sports. “When you see a kid like that at 16, 17 years old, right in that moment, you know he’s something special.”

Campazzo was only in Murcia on loan from Real Madrid. Two years later, the Argentinian returned to Spain’s biggest club for the 2017-18 season, where Doncic’s legend had only grown larger. He was fresh off being named Euroleague Rising Star by unanimous vote and earning ACB Best Young Player honors. After each practice, Doncic always lingered on the court while some teammates unlaced their sneakers, and Campazzo followed suit. Renowned assistant coach Paco Redondo would throw the two guards into endless drills.

Redondo, who piloted Real Madrid’s under-16 teams that featured Doncic, guides many Spanish players in offseason skill work and has no shortage of exercises at his disposal. He’d run Doncic and Campazzo through as many game shots as he could in those post-practice windows: out of the pick-and-roll, off the dribble, driving and passing to the corner and then relocating for the ball to swing back and around, and find them wide open for a clear triple. An eager Doncic soaked every minute detail, an emerging giant growing with each repetition.

“That kind of training for a young player is very important,” Campazzo said. “He teaches you have to move with the game. Off the ball, with the ball. That’s very important for a young kid like Luka was.”

Campazzo witnessed the beginnings of Doncic’s lethal stepback. Redondo would set two cones, two imaginary screeners, one yellow and one blue, at the top of the arc. He instructed both players to dribble hard around the first cone, sling the ball behind their back, then backpedal to start. Then they circled around to the second cone, repeating the sequence, only this time coming off the cone and firing a three.

Redondo even tasked them with Shammgod dribbles, a patented move from New York legend God Shammgod, now coincidentally an assistant coach in Dallas. Only the most daring have flaunted that particular move in NBA games, let alone a tactic most constructive trainers think about incorporating into practice sessions. But this was Doncic, and the prodigy was exhausting every avenue to fine-tune his craft.

“I think what he did in those years at Real Madrid, any player that takes a lot of time to get those kinds of shots, that movement, that IQ, I think he was already a great, great player over there,” Campazzo said.

An ACL injury to the team’s leader, reigning Euroleague MVP Sergio Llull, fully opened the door for Doncic’s star turn that 2017-18 season. Still just 19 years old, Doncic dazzled onlookers and powered Real Madrid to the Euroleague championship. “He took important shots with a lot of pressure,” Campazzo said. “He took most of the important shots. I think without him we weren’t going to win anything.”

The Mavericks have gotten their taste of Doncic’s postseason brilliance, where last spring, he suddenly incorporated arguably the most dangerous post game in the league — a skill package he hadn’t yet developed during those shared days with Campazzo. Doncic is constantly growing and improving. And with elevated expectations following last year’s playoff run, there is no time to waste in surrounding Doncic with the best roster Dallas can assemble.

A 32-year-old Walker doesn’t project to be an automatic cure to stop the Mavericks’ bleeding, but he can at least function as a Band-Aid. Knee issues have plagued him for the last two seasons. Walker is far from the perennial All-Star that Dallas chased back in 2019 free agency, when the Mavericks first waded the waters of trying to complement Doncic with a creative backcourt mate. Dallas had been linked to Jrue Holiday before he ultimately landed in Milwaukee, and then the Mavericks chased Kyle Lowry in 2021.

Yet few around the league expected Dinwiddie to flourish so effectively in Dallas’ reserve unit since coming over from Washington at last February’s trade deadline. Few expected Doncic to lift a roster that, outside of Dinwiddie and Brunson at the time, had little capacity to create shots, yet he pushed the Mavericks to within three wins of the NBA Finals. Perhaps Walker can provide the effective punch Dallas needs in sample sizes off the pine.

When you reach that threshold, and expectations are raised, that bar never lowers. The Mavericks were in the room, rubbing shoulders with other championship contenders, and now Dallas is trying to lessen the load on Doncic, even if it means leaving friends behind in the process.