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It’s become commonplace among amateur NBA draftniks to revere potential over production, particularly when considering overseas prospects. The success of the Gasol brothers, Dirk Nowitzki, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and others has exposed the next generation of NBA audiences to the possibility of embryonic greatness, which will always tantalize more than a consistently good player who played three or four years at a Power 5 college. But while fans might fantasize about the next Giannis landing on their team, many GMs aren’t so buoyant about overseas prospects. NBA executives can be gun shy even with increased exposure, usually via smartphone, of international players likely because of highly-touted talents from the 2000s who turned out to be largely duds—e.g Darko Milicic, Yi Jianlian, Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Andrea Bargnani. Even if the odds are overwhelmingly stacked in their favor, GMs aren’t keen on rolling the dice, which was the case with Luka Doncic.
Doncic was the consensus best player in the 2018 NBA Draft after finishing the greatest single season in European history: He won the ACB MVP (the top league outside the NBA), as well as the EuroLeague MVP and EuroLeague Final Four MVP during Real Madrid’s run to the title. He also made the EuroBasket All-Tournament team while helping Goran Dragic lead tiny Slovenia to their first EuroBasket gold. However, enough opprobrium about his game still existed that he fell to No. 3, but really No. 5, after Travis Schlenk rolled the dice on Trae Young in a move that may cost him his job as Hawks GM. Setting aside the very real production of Deandre Ayton (a lock for 20 and 10 on a middling Suns team for the length of his rookie deal) and Marvin Bagley III (who looked good but not elite before injury), Doncic will unanimously win the 2018-19 NBA Rookie of the Year award—unless some (likely Phoenix-area) scribe pulls a 2013 Gary Washburn.
That’s how good Doncic has looked in less than half a season’s time. There’s really no precedent for a teenager who foreshadows a future title. Even the pudgy version of Doncic this fall—owing to a teenage tendency towards apathy and a largely necessary summer sabbatical—elicited high praise from Dirk Nowitzki. This past December, Dave Joerger, head coach of the Sacramento Kings, who passed on Doncic, raised eyebrows when he said there was no ceiling on the Slovenian maestro.The Mavs may have landed that rare NBA commodity, a star who can lead them to another championship. But with such an important foundational piece now at the ready, the countdown to exploit his talents begins. Will the Mavs create the team Doncic deserves to compete for a title before another team lures him away in free agency?
Doncic’s size—he’s 6’7” and a solid 230 pounds—and skills align well with the contemporary game, and his step-back jumper only comes up short of Harden’s own iconic move.
Right now, it’s unclear if the Mavs realize they’ve acquired another franchise player right as their previous star racks up necessary DNP-CDs in his swan song season (sorry, Dirk). Dallas should ignore the haters, and lean into a Doncic future. The temptation to deride Doncic as an overrated fluke on a middling team with superior coaching—Rick Carlisle is a dick, but he’s one of a handful of coaches who actually add value—remains too easy a rebuttal to resist among those few who cautioned against drafting him. Any hedge against Doncic’s future stardom needs to be seriously questioned because Luka has been downright dominating, leading NBA rookies in scoring, while second in the NBA among rookies in assists, and third in rebounding. But it’s Doncic’s play in crunchtime that really sets him apart.
While most 19-year-olds might stress about a college quiz, the NBA’s own equivalent—the last minutes of a tight game—has been Luka’s time to shine. He’s not just holding his own among NBA stars at the end of close games, he’s exceeding their efficiency and production. Luka’s tied with LeBron James and ahead of Kevin Durant—just the two best players alive—for points scored during the last five minutes of a game where the difference is five points or less.
Not only that, but in that time he’s shooting 53.8 percent during crunch time, better than MVP frontrunner, James Harden, KD, and Kawhi Leonard. Harden and Doncic are both tied for the most points in the last five minutes of games that are even closer, with one point separating teams; although, Doncic remains a lot more efficient in such situations. This isn’t preeminence among the rookie class, it’s just NBA dominance. Harden got an up-close view of what Doncic can do in an early December game that’s likely the nadir of Houston’s 2018-19 season. Trailing the Rockets by eight, with under three minutes to go, Doncic scored the next 11 points of the game—including a demoralizing step-back that saw Clint Capela drop all the way to the paint before recovering—to give the Mavs the late lead in a 107-104 win.
what were you doing at 19? pic.twitter.com/3qF8o0lRqt— Spencer Lund (@SpencerTyrel) January 6, 2019
Cockiness defines teenage years, and Doncic’s guitar-strumming after the go-ahead shot aligns with his age. But that bravado swells even more when you realize Dallas’ rookie was just 3-of-13 from the field before knocking down those last four shots to beat the Rockets. For an NBA whippersnapper, his audacity to even take those shots reveals a lot about his on-court demeanor. Except that’s just one instance where he rose his play in a game’s most crucial moments in front of the biggest audience.
There was also the game-tying three against the Blazers, and a then career-high 32 vs. the Clippers on national TV, including a late 3-pointer to scare Clippers fans.
Earlier in the season, he scored a game-tying bucket on the Lakers and James, his mentor, before James eked out a free throw to win the game on the next possession.
Luka hits the clutch shot and Bron splits the free throw, but the Lakers hold on against the Mavs 👀 pic.twitter.com/AzvYEJEXQc— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) November 1, 2018
James signed a jersey for Luka after that game, but a month later, the wizened rookie blocked the King. Twice.
Luka blocked LeBron not once, but twice! 🚫🚫 pic.twitter.com/E4H8DP1nVQ— Dallas Mavericks (@dallasmavs) December 1, 2018
Doncic’s size—he’s 6’7” and a solid 230 pounds—and skills align well with the contemporary game, and his step-back jumper only comes up short of Harden’s own iconic move. He’s the perfect hybrid wing for the modern NBA offense—tall enough to see over most defenses and post up smaller guards, and quick enough to burn slow-poke power forwards and centers. He’s cagey with the ball as well, adept at faking defenders with a simple glance or slight ball fake. On top of those innate gifts as a playmaker, he possesses the vision of a 20-year vet and enough strength to throw cross-court LeBron dimes. But he’s also patient enough to work as an off-ball shooter and playmaker, a multifaceted cog for Carlisle’s various offensive machinations.
Doncic is far from perfect. Every Mavs move from here on out should shore up the weaknesses in his game. Defensively, he’s been subbed out late because he can be targeted on that end. Can they find a perimeter stopper—similar to Klay Thompson for Steph Curry—who can handle the more challenging guard and wing assignment? DeAndre Jordan ticks off all the boxes in terms of rim protection, but he’s 30 years old and on the downslope of his career. That doesn’t align with the Doncic timeline. They’ll need an obstacle in the restricted area to offset Doncic’s subpar defense. The Mavs could also use more shooters to space the floor for the pick-and-roll game Dallas will run in the throes of playoff basketball. Mark Cuban and GM Donnie Nelson have done this before with Nowitzki, and foolishly squandered his title window after letting Tyson Chandler walk the summer after beating James and the Heatles in 2011. Do-overs are uncommon, but Luka’s undeniable talent and moxy could be that chance. Except, Luka isn’t Dirk—he’s way better equipped to handle America’s sometimes overwhelming popular culture.
Cuban and Co. shouldn’t expect Luka to refrain from visiting other teams in free agency, like Dirk did in Dallas. Just like Tim Duncan wasn’t Kawhi Leonard, despite their introverted personalities around the media (Timmy was a laugh riot away from the cameras), the fact Dirk and Luka are both European imports might be the only thing they have in common. It’s unclear if the Slovenian wunderkind possesses Nowitzki’s grace and humility, important traits for any leader. But the cockiness and ego necessary to win an NBA title eluded Dirk for years. Luka’s already got the cojones, as ESPN’s Texas correspondent, Tim MacMahon, noted before Doncic lit Houston on fire in the final minutes.
Congrats to Luka Doncic on the first major award of his career https://t.co/TOoyjBZKbu— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) November 30, 2018
Luka’s got the talent and demeanor to be a champion, but the Mavs shouldn’t expect him to also exhibit Dirk’s willingness to stick out the tough times in Dallas if there are greater opportunities elsewhere. The hard part’s usually in finding the talent, so they’ve done that. But now they have to build a championship-caliber team around him, which isn’t easy. Just ask New Orleans.