Luka Dončić has always had the talent. No debating that.
What he’s done this season, however, is take a step beyond just being the Mavericks’ best player and one of the best on the planet.
He now is the unquestioned leader of the franchise.
And Luka the leader is going to get another opportunity to inspire his teammates and fanbase in the wake of his left calf strain suffered Sunday night in the third quarter against San Antonio.
Dončić had an MRI performed on Monday, which multiple reports said confirmed what the Mavericks first thought: a strain of the calf muscle. There is no timeline for his return to game action and his availability for Game 1 of the first-round playoff series against Utah, which starts Saturday at noon at American Airlines Center, is unclear.
However, any injury to the Mavericks’ superstar point guard is reason for concern. Especially with Game 1 looming on Saturday.
It’s too late to debate whether Dončić should have been playing in Sunday’s second half, given the circumstances. Golden State had a huge lead at New Orleans and was on the verge of wrapping up the No. 3 seed, assuring the Mavericks would be fourth in the Western Conference.
But what is important now is how Luka responds to this situation. He’s pretty much done everything right this season. He played 65 games, but that includes 41 of the last 43, meaning he was extremely durable when the Mavericks turned their season around.
That’s part of what being a leader is all about. Now, he’ll have to be a leader by showing the right way to come back from an injury that could have been a lot worse than it ended up being.
And the answers to how he responds may not be exactly what anybody wants to hear.
Remember, it was nearly 20 years ago that Don Nelson sat Dirk Nowitzki with a knee issue in the Western Conference finals of 2003 against San Antonio. Nelson was concerned that the injury, if exacerbated, could derail the then-young Nowitzki’s career.
Everybody – owner Mark Cuban included – wanted Nowitzki to play.
But years later, even Dirk admitted that not playing probably was the right decision.
Luka’s situation is different. But maybe not radically different. And his willingness to do the right thing — whatever that may be — is going to be another step in his growth.
It’s just another challenge for the young superstar, one that coach Jason Kidd hope Luka attacks with the same vigor that he has in other situations – like dealing with referees. That’s been an ongoing process for four seasons. But while he got close, Luka did not earn enough technical fouls to be suspended for a game this season.
That’s progress, in Kidd’s eyes.
“The communication we’ve had and continue to have is letting him know how to go about things,” Kidd said. “Guys who have the ball 80, 90 percent of the time, there can be a call every time. Understanding the game within the game of those calls – when do you try to get those calls. I think he’s worked on it. But I think it’s just his growth of when it’s time to go and when it’s time to back off and go to the next play.”
By extension, that’s a great commentary on where Luka is on the leadership ladder, Kidd said.
“When you look at his leadership qualities, he has fun playing the game so that attracts teammates wanting to help on both ends,” Kidd said. “He’s not afraid of the moment when you talk about late game. He wants the ball. He wants to be able to take the shot and he lives with the consequences, make or miss.
“And he doesn’t get up too high. A lot of guys express themselves, but he’s all about winning and everybody in that locker room knows that. Those are qualities of a leader.”
One of Luka’s teammates who has learned a lot about the NBA in a short amount of time had this to say about Dončić.
“I’ve learned he’s a pretty good player,” swingman Josh Green said. “When you’re playing with Luka, he has five people guarding him so at any time you could receive the ball. He’s still learning. We’re learning. This year, he’s turned into a really good leader for us.
“What Luka’s done this year is ridiculous. At his age, the numbers he’s putting up and leading the team. He’s had an amazing year.”
One of the NBA’s best leaders of all time, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, said the attributes of a leader are often self-evident.
And it was almost like he was describing Luka when he was talking.
“You know who the leaders are pretty quickly on any one of these teams,” Popovich said. “The person who garners the respect of the group ends up being your leader. And usually that individual is intelligent, but in a fair and genuine way.
“I’ve always said that NBA players have great (hogwash) antennae. They know if the coach is full of baloney. They know if a player is full of baloney and faking it. The team will decide who the leader is. But that’s a person of substance, who is genuine, who walks the walk and gets everything out of what he might have, whether it’s just effort or not that talented, or super-talented and effort on top of it.”
Again, it’s like he described Luka with the super-talented remark, at least.
This season, it’s clear the Mavericks have become Luka’s team. Kidd said the personality of a team always takes on the form of the best players. It’s never the coach’s team.
Which is why Luka’s comeback from the calf strain is going to be so intriguing.
Will he be back Saturday at 100 percent? Would he come back at something less than 100 percent? Will the Mavericks keep him out if they aren’t convinced that he is healthy enough to contribute – AND, not reinjure the calf.
These are big questions for leaders of the franchise.