One-on-One with Luka Doncic
Mavs rookie Luka Doncic goes one-on-one with Mavs.com's Bobby Karalla and dishes on coming to Dallas, playing with a legendary European in Dirk Nowitzki, and familiarizing himself with one of Dallas' best restaurants: Whataburger.
I don’t want to get you too excited, and I certainly don’t want to overhype a guy who’s never played an NBA game, but there has really never been a prospect like Luka Doncic.
OK, so we know the guy can play, and we know the Mavericks took a liking to him long ago and have targeted him since last fall. Clearly they’re all-in. But while they’re excited, they also made it clear that Doncic is still going to be a rookie in the NBA. Players are going to go at him — and not just guys on other teams. So instead of the beginning of a coronation, last night’s press conference with a relieved Donnie Nelson took an interesting turn when the man who traded up to get Doncic warned that it might not be smooth sailing right away for the Slovenian wunderkind. Rather than talk up Doncic’s achievement and potential the same way they did 20 years ago with Dirk Nowitzki, they reminded us — almost as if to remind themselves — that this latest mountain will be a challenge to climb no matter how good Doncic is.
“He’s going to have his rear end handed to him,” Nelson said. “I’m not going to make the same mistake we did 20 years ago. But (Nowitzki had) the comparisons of Larry Bird roll off the tongue. We’re going to steer away from any of those comparisons.”
“We’ve got to understand that he is 19,” Rick Carlisle added. “NBA stardom doesn’t happen overnight. It’s going to be a process.”
Cautious excitement is the responsible way for them to feel. Nelson, Carlisle, Mark Cuban, and the rest of the Mavericks invested quite a bit in Doncic — not only the No. 3 pick, but also likely their first-round pick next season as well. They need to get this right.
But that’s their job. My job is not nearly as important, but here we are. And considering Doncic was the No. 1 prospect on my board — and was for many, many brighter basketball minds than mine both locally and across the internet — there’s certainly plenty to be excited about. Here’s why you should be, too.
This isn’t exactly breaking news, but offense matters. The way the game is played now, every player on the floor has to be multi-dimensional; we often talk about the small ball revolution, but what’s really happening is a skill revolution. If you can’t shoot the 3-ball at above 40 percent, you’d better either be a world-class defender or able to create at least a little bit off the dribble. In Doncic’s case, he can handle the ball and read the floor like a point guard, though he stands about 6-foot-7 with a strong frame. He is a 1 in a 3’s body.
Doncic averaged 6.5 assists per 36 minutes in 73 games for Real Madrid last season. It’s important to say here that generally young players hardly even receive playing time at the highest levels in Europe, let alone the responsibility to carry the offense. Veteran legends like Sergio Rodriguez and Vassilis Spanoulis — whose No. 7 jersey inspired Doncic to wear the same number for Madrid — are supposed to control games in Europe, not teenagers. But Doncic isn’t your average teenager. Word spread quickly overseas that Doncic was legit, and not just among the European players. Americans are impressed, too. “I doubt 99 percent of this year’s draft class could do what he did in the Euroleague this season,” former Maverick Pierre Jackson told Alex Kennedy. “I think he is super talented, man. The sky’s the limit for the kid.” When you’re that good, you become the focal point.
He earned it all. His derived offense in the pick-and-roll — which includes possessions he used himself and also those finished off by teammates he passed to — generated 1.119 points per possession last season, ranking in the 93rd percentile among all international players in the entire world. That mark ranked 31st out of more than 1,600 players across the world who tallied at least 100 possessions in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports, and fourth out of 163 with at least 500 possessions. And he was by far the youngest of anyone anywhere near the top.
He was an elite playmaker for Madrid. Doncic is not a burner when it comes to speed, but he’s shifty, dynamic, and strong in ways similar to players like James Harden and even to a degree J.J. Barea. (In fact, thinking of Doncic like a 6-foot-7 Barea is a good way to get an idea of the kind of player he is, though it’s not totally accurate.) For example, he’s able to use his sturdy frame to drive right into big men and still finish at the rim, which both tricks them into committing touch fouls and creates some extra space to compensate for not having a 40-inch vertical.
He can also use that same size to his advantage against smaller players. Doncic has an advanced ability to feel his defender. Instead of constantly turning the corner in the pick-and-roll at full speed, he’s able to sense both what’s happening in front of and behind him, and he can patiently wait for his window of opportunity. Pinning defenders to your hip is a veteran move that has served shorter players like Chris Paul and Barea extremely well throughout their careers. Doncic can already do it.
Again, he does not appear to have top-end speed for a wing, but neither does Harden. What makes Harden such an elite player is his ability to stop on a dime and shift direction with more power than almost any other player in the NBA. Deceleration is not something we talk about very often, but that’s been Harden’s most lethal weapon as he’s risen to superstardom. He can lull you to sleep with some between-the-legs dribbles, then will take two hard steps to the right, and by the time you move that way, he’s already gone back to his left and scored two points — or, more dangerously, three. Harden dominates by slowing down.
This season more than ever, Harden’s quiet explosiveness unlocked the step-back 3-pointer, his go-to move on the way to averaging 30.4 points per game and the scoring title. I am not saying Doncic will be Harden. (Repeat: I am not saying Doncic will be Harden.) But I don’t remember a prospect coming along that had a step-back J similar to Harden’s at such a young age. Doncic is able to free himself up for a jumper almost any time he wants — and his ability to decelerate is a huge reason why.
He shot just 31.0 percent from deep with Madrid this season, though most of his attempts were off-the-dribble while fewer were of the catch-and-shoot variety. A combination of slightly more space in the NBA, more catch-and-shoots, and of course plenty of hours in the gym with coaches (Holger, anyone?) will almost surely result in an uptick in accuracy in the coming months and years.
Good scorers are hard enough to find, but it’s even more difficult to find guys who can fill it up and also create for their teammates. There’s been a shift in the NBA in recent seasons where point guards must now be able to be a threat to score, otherwise your entire offense shuts down because of the way teams can defend you. The same holds true for playmaking wings, and Doncic certainly qualifies as one of those. He was often the primary facilitator for Madrid whenever he was on the floor, whether it was with the second unit or, eventually, even the starting lineup. Again, we cannot say enough how rare it is for such a young player to carry as much responsibility as Doncic did. Even the brightest European prospects in recent seasons didn’t come close: Mario Hezonja played 15.1 minutes per game for Barcelona before coming to the NBA, and Kristaps Porzingis played just 21.4 for Real Betis. Doncic, meanwhile, led his team in points and assists per game and often had the ball in his hands late in crunch time.
As point guards have become scorers, so too have guards and forwards become playmakers. Everyone must now be able to do both. That holds true for Dennis Smith Jr., who learned to play off the ball last season next to J.J. Barea, in what now seems like an eerie bit of foreshadowing. He will certainly play off the ball every now and then while Doncic is on the floor; it’s relatively safe to assume the rookie will be either a day-one starter or will receive tons of playing time as a sixth man. They will share the floor together often. But that does not mean Smith won’t touch the ball. Believe me, the ball will fly all over the place. Dallas was a top-half team in passes per possession last season, and I would believe they could climb into the top-five this season. Both Doncic and Smith will have plenty of chances to eat.
That’s a terrific thing for the Dallas starting lineup in particular. Last season, the most-frequent starting lineup (Smith, Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki, Maxi Kleber) collectively assisted on 60.3 percent of their made field goals. That’s a more than respectable mark and would have ranked top-10 in the league last season. But the second unit of J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell, Devin Harris, Dirk Nowitzki, and Dwight Powell assisted on an astonishing 70.2 percent made buckets, which would have led the entire NBA and it wouldn’t really have been close. That group’s assist percentage ranked second among the 48 lineups with at least 200 minutes played, standing only behind the Curry-Thompson-Durant-Green-Pachulia unit in Golden State. After swapping Harris for McDermott, that number rose all the way to an absurd 72.2 percent. The Mavericks can move the ball well — they were one of six teams in the NBA to have multiple players average at least five assists per game, and their assist percentage ranked 10th in the league — but adding Doncic could help them morph from one of the better ball movement teams to one of the very best.
Doncic is capable of manipulating the defense with his ball-handling and as a threat to score. Because he’s so dangerous as a driver and shooter coming off screens, defenses have to respect him. That’s going to open up small passing lanes, but Doncic is so clever that he can turn small rooms of space into wide-open jump shots for his teammates.
Doncic is especially adept at finding players for corner 3s, which has become one of the most important shots in the NBA. Dennis Smith Jr. is also excellent at finding guys there, which could mean great things for Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes — Matthews shot a ridiculous 46.4 percent on corner 3s last season, per Basketball-Reference, and Barnes was no slouch either, hitting 41.2 percent. (On a side note, that could be very beneficial for Barnes, who will likely spend much more time at power forward this season. All that bruising could take a toll on his legs throughout games, and as corner 3s are shorter, taking more of them and fewer long-distance treys could result in a jump in his 3-point percentage.)
Doncic’s presence on the roster will allow Rick Carlisle the freedom to keep two of the trio of Smith, Doncic, and Barea on the floor at all times if he so chooses. Jalen Brunson, who they drafted No. 33 overall, is a terrific facilitator in his own right, leading the Villanova offense to one of the best seasons we have seen in some time. And to be clear, Carlisle is very happy about it. “I never think you can have too many playmakers on a team,” he said.
The Mavericks needed to add a quality young player in this draft. Earning pick No. 5 was a good start, but it wasn’t good enough to get the guy they wanted. Instead of standing pat and taking someone else, they went and got him. Credit to the organization for pulling it off, for forming one of the most intriguing young duos in the NBA in Smith and Doncic. They complement each other extremely well in nearly every way. Both can get a shot off at virtually any time, and while Smith can get to the rim at will, Doncic prefers step-back Js. Both can find shooters on the perimeter, and while Smith can terrorize defenses by driving hard with a rim-rolling buddy stampeding alongside him, Doncic can look for cutters (including Smith) as he finesses his defender 20 feet from the rim. As both continue to improve from distance, the Mavs’ offense looks like it could be a major problem in the near future.
The questions will be answered, the potential possibly fulfilled, in time. Maybe in one year, maybe in several. But the Mavericks now have the foundation — a core featuring Smith, Doncic, and a constantly improving Harrison Barnes — for the future, with more money and flexibility to pull off other moves this summer. No matter how this ride ends, whether it’s in five years or 20, it’s hopefully going to be an exciting era of Mavericks basketball.