There came a point early in Sunday’s game between the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets when it became clear that the best player on the court was not James Harden, the five-time All-Star and 2017-18 MVP.
Nor was it Russell Westbrook, the eight-time All-Star and 2016-17 MVP.
No, the “man” on this night was a 20-year-old second-year player from Slovenia named Luka Doncic, and his sublime skill set is taking the NBA by storm while making the Mavericks significant for the first time since Dirk Nowitzki was doing his thing.
Doncic, while wearing a pair of Jordan-brand sneakers, finished with 41 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists on 51% shooting in a 137-123 Mavericks victory.
He walked off the court to chants of “MVP, MVP” from a contingent of Mavs fans.
That may be a bit presumptuous considering it is still early in a long season, but Doncic enters a tantalizing matchup against Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday night in rare historical company.
Doncic is averaging 30.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 9.8 assists per game while stacking up triple-doubles like Ice Cube in a pickup game.
The only other player to average at least 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists through the first 16 games of a season was the great Oscar Robertson in 1961-62.
Through their first 88 career games, Doncic has more points than Kobe Bryant, more rebounds than Kevin Garnett, and more assists than LeBron James.
And, Doncic is the second-youngest player in NBA history to record 30 or more points in four straight games. Kevin Durant did twice during the 2009 season.
Again, he is 20.
“He is must-watch right now,” said NBA TV analyst and former NBA star Caron Butler, who won a championship with the Mavericks in 2011. “It feels like every night he is putting on a show and the thing about it is, he’s getting better by the day. He’s definitely one of the best 20-year-olds I have ever seen.”
An avid NBA junkie since the early ’80s when Dr. J was still making house calls in Philly, I spend most evenings flipping around to various games.
The first few times I saw Doncic play, the comparison that popped in my head was: “Larry Bird.”
And there are some similarities between the 6-7, 218-pound Doncic and the legendary Bird, who was listed at 6-9 and generally played in the 220-230 pound range.
Like Bird, Doncic is not freakishly athletic but combines good size, smooth ball-handling skill, tremendous passing vision, and deft shooting touch, and backs it all up with an attitude of athletic arrogance that seems to say: “I’m the baddest dude on this court and you can’t stop me.”
They also share skin tone and let’s face it, that is generally how we compare athletes. This also feels a bit lazy because Doncic seems to have a game that blends a plethora of styles.
Call him the basketball human mixtape.
Doncic has a killer Harden-like step-back move he uses to free himself for open jump shots. His hesitation dribble makes me think of the great Rod Strickland.
The running floater he used to score over Harden on one occasion Sunday conjures images of Isaiah Thomas as a young Detroit Piston.
And his Euro-Step would make the move’s perfector, former Spurs great Manu Ginobili, beam with pride.
Kevin Broom is a long-time NBA analyst and writer for sites such as BulletsForever.com, and has come up with a statistical model that helps compare players at different stages of their careers.
What does putting Doncic through the “Doppelganger Machine,” as Broom calls it, produce?
Some current stars pop up, such as Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who added to his own MVP claim with a 50-point performance in a win over Utah Monday night, as well as Kevin Durant and Steph Curry and recently retired studs like Tracy McGrady.
So does one truly notable name: Michael Jordan.
Broom: “The names that show up as closest comps are thoroughly modern: Harden, LeBron, Westbrook, Giannis, Durant. Steph. McGrady’s age-23 season shows up. The first ’80s season on the list is Jordan’s in ’88-’89.”
Long-range projection can be tricky, especially for someone as young as Doncic, but historically, if a player is going to be a star, we see it early.
We are seeing the very beginning of something special with Doncic. This assumes he maintains a strong work ethic and fills out physically with prime nutrition and weight training.
“I studied a lot of Paul Pierce when I was in college and as a young pro player,” Butler said. “It’s pretty clear to me that Luka watched a lot of LeBron. His awareness, his IQ. He makes everyone around him better, that’s the main thing. He’s a different breed. In the end, he is just the first Luka.”
From Slovenia with game
Slovenia is an Eastern European nation of 2.8 million people with a basketball culture that dates back to the 1940s.
Doncic is from Ljubljana and starred as a young player for the club Union Olimpija where his father played professionally. At the age of 7, Doncic was holding his own against 10-year-olds. He was also developing traits we are seeing on full display against NBA competition today.
“I was always training and playing with older kids who had much more experience than me,” Doncic said. “Many of them were bigger and faster than me too, so I had to beat them with my brain.”
After joining the Spanish club team Real Madrid as a 13-year-old, Doncic continued to develop. He eventually led Madrid to the 2018 EuroLeague title and was named EuroLeague MVP.
The Mavericks landed him via a draft-night swap with Atlanta for another promising young star: guard Trae Young.
After that winding journey to the NBA, Doncic adapted rapidly. He does not sound much different than a kid who grew up in, say, Baltimore or Los Angeles.
“From the time I first picked up a basketball, I just fell in love with it,” Doncic recently told NBA TV. “I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
Reporter Michael Lee covers the NBA for The Athletic. He has written about the NBA since the early 2000s, and has seen more than his share of talented players.
In 2006, Lee wrote a series of articles for The Washington Post about Eastern European basketball culture and player development in that part of the world.
“I did think a player like Luka was inevitable because you can’t have generations of international talent coming to America and finding success, without eventually having guys come to league expecting to be successful,” Lee said. “I remember talking to Pau Gasol about when he arrived from Spain and he said the NBA, to him, was like ‘a different galaxy.’ The world is much smaller now. These guys are exposed to NBA games at younger ages. They’ve embraced American culture through music and fashion. So, of course, he’d have a little sauce right away … Luka has already seen what can be done, where basketball can take him, because guys like Dirk, Pau, Hakeem, and whoever else you want to name have done it.”
Paired with forward Kristaps Porzingis, Doncic has helped make the Mavericks one of the most entertaining shows in the NBA.
Tuesday night’s game against the Clippers will be shown nationally on NBA TV. The Mavericks will make a total of nine appearances on ESPN and four on TNT this season.
Commissioner Adam Silver should be commended for being open to potential changes with his league. One thing he should start with is getting more Mavericks games on TV.
For a league looking to boost ratings after a decline, the emergence of a player like Doncic is a no-brainer. Also noteworthy: Doncic is a sneaker free agent and several major companies are interested in a potential signature line.
Doncic’s exploits certainly have been noticed by the Clippers. Suddenly, they have an unexpected roadblock in their path to a potential championship run.
“So Dallas, talent-wise, I think they’re really performing higher than I think people would expect, and he’s the reason for it,” Paul George said. “He’s really doing everything, so I’ve been watching. I’ve been keeping up and following what he’s been doing and, man, he’s doing it. He’s in the MVP conversations right now. So it’s kind of hard to not know what’s going on in Dallas.”