CHARLOTTE – As Donnie Nelson was hanging out in Europe for the last few years, and tracking literally every basketball move Luka Doncic made, he came across an interesting observation.
Doncic was always the youngest player on the court, but he didn’t let his young age prevent him from dominating most games. It was as if Doncic relished the idea of beating the older men at a game he always referred as “just basketball.”
Nelson, the president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks, always viewed Doncic as this gifted warrior who was destined for stardom, destined to bust through the NBA gates and showcase his special talents.
“We’ve been tracking him for a while,” Nelson said. “Really, I feel like I’ve lived in Europe two years before the (2018 NBA) draft.”
Nelson sent an inordinate amount of time in Europe so he could scout, among others, Doncic. Unquestionably the best player in Europe, Doncic was the player the Mavs had set their sites on plucking from last summer’s draft.
“He’s a winner in every sense of the word,” Nelson said. “Just a guy that naturally loves to pass, make plays, just a big moment guy who won on every level.
“There’s a maturity to his game that it seems like at every level when he was playing as a youth and then into his mid- to late teens, he was always playing against bigger guys and getting it done against those guys. So those were some of the things that we saw.”
Still, not even smart basketball minds like Nelson — who are overly experienced when it comes to tapping into the international market — were prepared for what Doncic was about to accomplish on the NBA level. They didn’t think his skill set, his charisma, his talents would translate to the NBA so quickly, or that he would be a consistent dominant figure right away.
“Honestly, I was expecting a much more typical rookie year, which was maybe going through a little bit more ups and downs than we’ve seen,” Nelson said. “It’s great that he’s embraced the opportunity and he’s making the most of it.”
No one obviously knows for sure where Doncic’s trajectory will take him. But it’s increasingly clear that he is no ordinary NBA rookie.
“He looks like he’s been in the league for four or five years already, but I think that goes back to his roots and how he’s been competing at this level,” Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego said. “But I think his experience speaks for itself.
“He’s had great success already at a very young age, and it’s translated. I think people were a little skeptical — could it translate to the NBA — and obviously it has. He sees the game at an extremely high level and just has a great confidence out there.”
With that confidence, Doncic will be playing for the World Team when they take on the U.S. Team in the Rising Stars game on Friday at 8 p.m. at the Spectrum Center. And Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki will be the honorary coach for the World Team.
Doncic also will be a participant in the Skills Challenge on Saturday.
Mavs proprietor Mark Cuban has joined the list of those singing Doncic’s praises. Cuban knows he has a special player in Doncic, who is only 19 years old and could be a part of the Mavs’ franchise for over two decades.
“Nothing phases him, the game is slow to him, he doesn’t lose his composure too much, he sees the floor unbelievable,” Cuban said. “He’s calm, he lets the game comes to him, he doesn’t speed up with the game.
“It’s not too fast, the moments are never too big. You don’t see that in rookies — ever. Ever.”
Cuban is impressed with the way Doncic is able to capture the moment, then go out and does what needs to be done for that particular moment.
“It looks like he’s so much slower because he’s so under control,” Cuban said. “It’s kind of like people used to say Tracy McGrady was slow.
“Luka just plays at an even keel the whole time. He just knows how to play.”
That balance Doncic has displayed – the balance of knowing when to score, when to rebound, when to get his teammates involved, when to take total control of the game – is an innate characteristic which makes him such a special player. And an innate characteristic all the great players possess.
“He’s impressive,” Cleveland Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr. said. “You see him on TV and everything and it’s hard to tell how tall he is until you get next to him.
“He’s a problem now and he’s going to be a problem for – what, he’s 19 or 20? So, we’re going to have to deal with that for 15, 18 more years, or whatever he’s lucky enough to play.”
Nance describes himself as “a fan” of Doncic who has admired his game from afar.
“He’s very refined, but I would say more so poised,” Nance said. “I mean, you never speed him up. He’s just got his own thing going on, just kind of cruising.
“You can throw whatever defender on him and he’s still got his own pace and his own speed to whatever he’s doing. So, like I said, I was thoroughly impressed, just as the rest of the league is.”
Doncic has been compared to legends like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Others believe he has some incredible passing qualities that rival those of Jason Kidd.
“You’re talking about a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest that ever played the (point guard) position, Nelson said of Kidd. “But they both love to pass the ball.
“I was watching Jason when he was in high school back in the day when that was OK, and you could just tell that Jason had qualities where he loved to set up other people. And I think Luka has the same thing.”
Borrego even went so far as to admit that he believes Doncic can glance into the future and see plays develop before they actually develops.
“He has great confidence, great swagger, understands the game at an extremely high level, and can almost read a play before it happens,” Borrego said. “He’s a step ahead of most of his opponents, he can play off the ball, he can play with the ball.
“He’s got great size, so it makes it tough (to defend) in the pick-and-roll. He can pass over defenses, he can hit the roller, hit the skip and make the three. He’s a special player who is only going to get better.”
A special player who gets cheers in opposing arenas during pre-game introductions, and a special player who has opposing fans oohing and aahing during games when they see him displaying his exceptional ball-handling and passing skills, along with his patented step-back 3-point shot all while flashing that effervescent smile.
“The charisma comes with not being afraid of the moment,” Cuban said. “When you see a kid out there who’s just playing basketball and not afraid, that’s where the charisma comes from. It’s not like he’s doing some shake every time, or he’s not doing this or not doing all of this.
“He’s just having fun, he’s just being a kid. I think it’s not so much charisma. I think people enjoy the joy.”
And that “joy” is precisely what the Mavs are enjoying, as Doncic jerseys are flying off the Mavs’ shelves as quickly as they arrive. In other words, fan across America are tracking everything Doncic does, basketball-wise, the same way Donnie Nelson did a few years ago.