On the Friday night of January 11th, 2019 the Dallas Mavericks won a 119-115 game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. With 29 points, 12 assists, and 8 rebounds, their top scorer – Luka Doncic, a 19-year old Slovenian rookie who, as of last night, became the youngest player in NBA history with 25 points and 10 assists in a game since 2004 when Los Angeles Lakers’ superstar LeBron James set the record, according to ESPN. Luka Doncic, can quite possibly become the next greatest basketball player in the NBA.
In retrospect, this was an knowingly unexpected surprise. In the 2018 NBA Draft, a majority of the basketball community were doubtful on how this teenager from the EuroLeague would translate into the NBA. Although he came to the 2018 Draft as the Euro League’s youngest MVP ever and with a number of championship accolades (including the Spanish League title he won with Spanish basketball team Real Madrid as an 18 year-old the season prior) in a league believed to be more competitive than the NCAA, Doncic was still attached to the prevalent history of failed European basketball players.
Like a basketball, he was passed by the Phoenix Suns and the Sacramento Kings until he was picked up by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, then traded to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Trae Young.
That was 7 months ago.
According to ESPN.com, since his debut on October 17th, 2018 Doncic is averaging a total of 20.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1.1 steals per game in his rookie season. The only other players with similar averages in their rookie season were Grant Hill, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan, who were also All-Stars in their first season. At 6’ 7’’ and 218 pounds, Doncic’s size and surprising agility reflect in his skill as a powerful combo guard, a mixture of a point guard and a small forward. Similar to combo guards like retired San Antonio Spurs player Manu Ginóbili or Houston Rockets’ James Harden, Doncic is a proficient scorer and playmaker.
Sometimes, when and where you are makes all the difference, and this rookie seems to make the difference on the court in the last minutes of a tight game. He has quickly become one of the league’s top scorers in crunch time (less than 5 minutes left in a game and less than a 5 point difference), surpassing players like the Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant, the Lakers’ LeBron James, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Boston Celtics’ Kyrie Irving, otherwise known as established superstars. In both of his games against the Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets, he’s drained a substantial three for the Mavericks.
LUKA IN CLUTCH TIME 🔥 pic.twitter.com/yH9c2azRPi
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 12, 2019
what were you doing at 19? pic.twitter.com/3qF8o0lRqt
— Spencer Lund (@SpencerTyrel) January 6, 2019
However, the rookie is still a rookie. He leads his Draft class in points, but also in turnovers, with over 50 so far this season, averaging 3.22 turnovers a game. In addition, the Slovenian has a personality. Mavericks’ head coach Rick Carlisle, will call the occasional timeout to scold Doncic for a high-risk decision. In the first quarter against the Boston Celtics, Doncic passed out three assists to open teammates for 3-pointers. Then he got greedy and tried to force a pass in the paint to Mavericks power forward Barnes, a pass that was easily intercepted by the Celtics. It led to a scored three for the Celtics and a timeout by Carlisle, who barked at Doncic. The criticism seemed to bounce of Doncic as talked back to his couch without breaking a sweat to the Dallas bench.
Nevertheless, when asked about the rate of Doncic’s impact, Mavericks President Donnie Nelson said that, “most rookies, especially rookies coming from the other side of the pond, it takes at least a year. He’s hit the ground running.” Dirk Nowitzki, legendary German power forward of the Dallas Mavericks, said on Dallas radio’s 105.3 The Fan that, “He’s [Doncic] unbelievable in the pick-and-roll play. He did, like, over-the-head, between-the-leg passes to cutters. The savviness that he brings, the court vision is already unbelievable. I couldn’t believe what I saw for a 19, 20-year-old. Unbelievable.” The Mavericks’ player development coach, Mike Procopio, nicknamed him “The Matador,” as an acknowledgment of the Doncic’s showmanship and history in Spain.
Luka Doncic drives by DRose and throws down a dunk! pic.twitter.com/XUCI9PoBD3
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) January 12, 2019
If that wasn’t enough praise, even the his opponents are accrediting the Matador. Minnesota Timberwolves’ interim head coach Ryan Saunders had to speak on the rookie, “He’s a talent…big-time players make big-time plays. He made one tonight and we’re feeling it.” Sacramento Kings head coach David Joerger told ESPN, “He’s [Doncic] got a lot of different skills and I think he’s going to become a heck of a shooter…And when that happens, it’s going to make him quicker. He’s got good ball-handling and he knows how to play. Perhaps there was an idea that there was a ceiling on him. I don’t see it, unfortunately for us. But he’s great for them and he’s great for our league.”
In the second return of the 2019 NBA All-Star Voting, Doncic comes in second in the Western Conference to the league’s overall leader James (with 2,779,812 votes) by a difference of only 559,735 votes. The rookie does surpass the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry (with 2,094,158 votes), who is the number one guard in the West, by 125,919 votes. When applied to the entire league, Doncic comes in fourth behind James, Antetokounmpo, and Kyrie Irving. The Slovenian is in good company, in fact, he is in All-Star company, and if he makes the All-Star team he will be the first rookie since Blake Griffin of the Detroit Pistons to make the squad since 2011. In addition to that, he could quite possibly become the captain of his own squad. If Doncic can close the gap between himself and James in terms of votes, and if James’ injury continues to prolong itself, then the All-Star game in Charlotte on February 17th may be one of unprecedented history.