Dallas Mavericks

In his NBA debut, Luka Doncic showed why he belongs

You’ll forgive Luka Doncic for not jumping up and down in anger after a 121-100 loss in Phoenix to start his NBA career — he barely even gets off the ground for his jump shot.

Doncic put together an up-and-down debut that mirrored that of the Mavericks. He keep the game close and entered in the fourth quarter with Dallas in striking distance, only to be cut down by Devin Booker and the Suns.

As for every rookie debuting this week in the NBA, it’s just one in a series of many, many games that will ultimately build into a career.

His goal?

“Win the game, of course. Always.”

Even amid a loss, it was tough not to get excited about Doncic, watching his prolific career move to a new chapter in the United States. But if things look as they did in spurts for Dallas playing the Suns, with Doncic probing and expanding and the limits of the offense, there will be plenty of winning to come.

We don’t yet know what the fully polished version of Doncic’s game will look like, but we can already see the building blocks of what will make him great some day. Strength, a slick handle, incredible passing vision and most of all patience — sweet, nonchalant patience.

Doncic waits for the game to catch up to him. There were several examples in game one. Gauging the improved defense of Deandre Ayton, Doncic was unfazed. He went right at the No. 1 pick early in the game, probing for even the smallest gash in the Suns’ defense to take advantage of.

Before the crowd — with more Mavericks fans than you’d expect in Phoenix — knew to beware of the yo-yoing pick-and-roll game Doncic was playing, he was in rhythm.

He backed Booker down on a switch in the post and willed his way into a quick bucket. He ran out in transition and cleaned up a blocked Dennis Smith Jr. dunk, pausing for a split second as T.J. Warren soared through the air for a would-be second block. Doncic dropped it through the net.

Throughout the game, when opportunities came, he pounced. A quick one-man fastbreak in the third quarter highlighted the moment-to-moment awareness that will give Doncic advantages nightly.

We’ll see Doncic put up plenty of numbers — he’s currently Bovada’s Rookie of the Year favorite — but make sure you take notice of what he’s not doing, too. Fewer mistakes than opponents his age, control of the game that takes years to calculate. This is what special looks like in infancy.

Remember too that this was just the first page in the NBA section of the rookie’s story. He has already had success on the international stage, Wednesday was about measuring himself against the world’s top competition.

“Luka’s played in a lot of big games, important games. He’s been in a lot of big games. So I don’t feel like he needs to be nurtured through this at all,” said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle.

But for most of his debut Wednesday, it wasn’t enough. Small things build to good habits and future success, but they don’t win individual basketball games. After falling down 13 in the first quarter, Dallas wasn’t able to make ground, even when Booker’s foul trouble forced the Suns to play without he or Ayton for a couple long stretches.

Next: Jeremy Lin has lived a basketball lifetime

It also must be noted that the team rallied to finish the third quarter with Doncic on the bench. After a couple clanked jumpers from Doncic, Carlisle opted to go with a super small lineup led by the team’s other rookie, Jalen Brunson. Doncic wouldn’t return until near the end of the game, at which point Phoenix caught fire and put their home opener away.

When the crowd is energized and the stakes are so high, one game can take on outsize importance. Monday was Doncic vs. Ayton, the No. 1 pick battling No. 3. These teams have history from bygone eras. Doncic, though, has enough experience to know not to buy into the hype in either direction.

“It’s the first game. Eighty-one to go, and I’m not worried about it,” he said.

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