In hindsight, it’s hard to believe that two teams flat-out didn’t think Luka Dončić was worthy of their high draft pick in 2018.
One of those was the Phoenix Suns. That’s the team the Mavericks open the 2020-21 season against Wednesday night in the desert (9:30, FSSW/ESPN). The other was Sacramento.
If either of those teams had zeroed in on Dončić, (instead of Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley, respectively) who knows what the NBA would look like right now. The Mavericks might have still been able to pull off the trade that they did with Atlanta to swap the Hawks’ No. 3 pick for the Mavericks’ No. 5 pick (Trae Young, plus their 2019 first-round pick).
But it might not have happened.
As it turned out, the events of that draft night in the summer of 2018 (remember when the draft was in the summer?) worked out perfectly for the Mavericks.
It’s been a spectacular, rapid rise to superstardom for Luka.
He enters his third season tonight as one of the favorites to win the MVP award – along with the other usual suspects, the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Lakers’ LeBron James, the Warriors’ Steph Curry and maybe the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and the Nets’ Kevin Durant.
In fact, vegasinsider.com has Dončić as the favorite at 4-to-1 odds.
The interesting question is what exactly the Slovenian wonder can do to top his amazing second season in the league. When you are on the list with Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook as the only players in history to average more than 28 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists for a full season, there likely isn’t a lot of room to grow statistically.
What will make the difference for Luka this season will be two important things: how well the players around him perform and how well the Mavericks do.
Obviously, those two things are connected.
If the Mavericks have the sort of season the oddsmakers expect (they are 4-to-9 favorites to win the Southwest Division) Dončić will garner plenty of attention from fans, media and, of course, opposing defenses.
“Luka is unreal, so I would say team success,” said Kristaps Porzingis when asked about the MVP keys for Dončić. o should be back in January from his offseason knee surgery. “The better we are as a team, the better we’re all going to look.”
Porzingis should be back in January from his offseason knee surgery. That will help the overall strength of the Mavericks.
But coach Rick Carlisle said it will be the overall improvement of Luka’s teammates that could vault him to the front of the MVP conversation.
“It’s the overall refinement of his game, of his role as a leader on this team,” Carlisle said of what Dončić needs to improve on. “Each year that passes, he’s going to become more and more of that main guy who’s the leader of our team on the floor and I presume off the floor, too, as time goes on.
“He’s got so many different things that he already does on the court that in some ways it can be kind of a quandary to figure out what he can possibly do next. But he continues to work hard on all areas of his game. And everything becomes more and more honed and refined as time goes on and I think that’s going to be the main thing you see with him.”
Luka, of course, just wants to win. Win games. Win playoff games and series. Win championships, someday.
But he knows you can’t skip steps. The Mavericks were just happy to get into the playoffs last season. They had been lottery-bound for three seasons.
Now, with Dončić established as one of the best players on the planet, the Mavericks will focus on the next steps.
One player who has known Dončić longer than most in the organization is Josh Richardson. Both of them attended a California camp when Dončić was 16. It was clear then what kind of gifts he possessed.
“He walked into the gym that morning, the weight room, and I’d never seen him before,” Richardson remembers. “I saw his body and how he was built and they told me he was 16. I was like, no way.
“And when we were playing, the pace, it’s rare that you see that. He shot a few step-backs, made a few good passes. And I was like, he’s got it. He’s got it.”
Indeed he does. As newcomer Wesley Iwundu said: “He’s a great player. Luka, he makes everybody better, makes it easier for everyone. That’s what great players do.”
It’s what MVPs do.