Dallas Mavericks

Luka Doncic is a basketball wunderkind

Rooting for Luka Doncic is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. It’s not like he’s suddenly one of the best players in the NBA. It’s not like his raw numbers are so eye-popping by themselves. 18 points, 6.5 boards, and 4.3 assists on .478/.382/.787 is very good, but not exactly All-Star numbers. And it’s not even that he’s a rookie — Donovan Mitchell did more or less the same last year, and other rookies have had incredible, preternatural starts at very young ages. It’s that he’s totally in control, he looks like a ten-year vet, and it’s already his team before he turns 20 years old.

Now, when you say this, people often say what are, to me, nonsensical things. They’ll say things like, “of course! He’s been a pro for three years now!” referring to his time at Real Madrid. Okay – you know who else has been a “pro” for a few years now, at Luka’s age? Frank Ntilikina, who played for SIG Strasbourg from 2015-2017. The point isn’t that SIG Strasbourg is Real Madrid or that you can compare Frank’s role on that team to Luka’s on his, it’s that the fact that he played in Europe for a while is a horrible explanation for how he’s already as good as he is. Milos Teodosic was a European pro for a million years, and widely regarded as one of the greatest passers in the world. Non-PG Luka has roughly as many assists per game as Teodosic had even last year, when he was playing 25 minutes per. That’s not why.

Let me put it this way. As a Mavs fan, obviously, the 2011 Mavs are my favorite team ever. And I know they won’t go down as an all-time great team because we never got the chance to see if they could do it again. I feel very strongly that they weren’t a fluke, and that they don’t compare to, say, a Pistons team that caught lightning in a bottle and matched up surprisingly well with the Lakers. But I don’t know that, and can’t know that. No one can.

But what made that team so great was that it was one of the greatest assemblages of basketball intelligence in modern NBA history. It was full of all these guys who on other teams, even on the Mavs themselves, almost were but never quite made it, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Peja Stojakovic, Dirk, and the Jet, and guys like Tyson Chandler who were so great, and so smart, but had never been on a team good enough to prove it. He won DPOY the next year with the Knicks, doing the same things he always had, but now people knew who he was. I’ll always maintain that if Dirk hadn’t been injured and out for nine games, during which they went 2-7, and then lost a few more while he got back in form, they would have been the favorites going into the playoffs and people would have known.

Watching Luka is like watching that, and in more ways than one. That’s to say that, like all those vets, Luka moves pretty slowly but gets to exactly where he wants to be when he wants to be there. He gets that stepback off against top-NBA defenders, no matter what they want, and he gets to the rim moving roughly as quickly as Zach Randolph does. A little while ago, against the Jazz, he grabbed a rebound against all-universe rebounder and defender Rudy Gobert, then faked a pass around him to a cutting Wes Matthews, then hit an easy layup off the glass without even jumping. I couldn’t believe it.

And he loves big moments! He loves them. Earlier in the month, the Mavs were clinging to a six-point lead against the Blazers, as Damian Lillard began to do the thing he does where he hits so many 3s so fast nobody is safe. Luka got the ball at the 3-point line on the right arc, drove past the defender scrambling towards where he had been, stopped on a dime and hopped backward — picture a right angle, and you’ll see where he was behind the arc in part 1 and part 2 — and buried the step-back to ice the game. I never doubted it. He’s 19.

The NBA has many, many talented players. Some would say they’re all pretty good, which, I guess –– if you have no standards. But some people were just born knowing what to do with a basketball. There have been players who could jump higher than Michael Jordan, there have been people — as hard as it is to believe — stronger and more athletic than LeBron James. That’s not what made them great, but instead, something like genius, some way that among the elites of the elite the time and space of basketball happen differently for them. Luka has it. The game is at a different speed for him, and it is considerably easier, like he leapt out of the forehead of basketball Zeus fully-formed like Pallas Athena.

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And of course, there will be harder days than this. He’s not going to hit every important shot, and he’s far from perfect. When NBA teams start to worry about him more, they’ll figure him out more, and he’ll have to evolve. He’s a physical player, which wears you down over the course of a season, and some of his success so far is because, right now, basketball’s fun. This team has been without hope for a long time, and it’s not remotely a title threat. Everything Luka brings is a fun bonus, and not as deadly serious as it will be when the stakes are higher. Like every young player, he has, and will have, a lot to learn — particularly if he has to share the limelight with other stars, and can’t have the ball in his hands as much.

Still, though, I could not imagine any player under the age of 20, no matter how many years they had played for whom, coming into the league and looking like this. He is a basketball genius, his instincts are insane, his all-around-game is incredible. He’s in charge. I can’t wait to see him play with Dirk — the old master, and the new — but the fact of the matter is the baton has already been passed, which is something I never thought I’d say. It’s a new day in Dallas, and it is already must-see-tv.

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