DALLAS – When it comes to comparing Dallas Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic to any current or former NBA players, forget about it. Mavs executives believe such bold comparisons rolling off their lips aren’t necessary.
The Mavs have been there, done that with one of their players and the comparison game, and the outcome wasn’t pretty in certain parts of the world.
Mainly, back in 1998 when the Mavs acquired Dirk Nowitzki in a draft day trade with the Milwaukee Bucks, many compared his game to that of Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird. That didn’t go over too well with the Bird followers.
So when the Mavs were asked last week who they fondly compare their latest prized rookie – Doncic – to, their lips were unilaterally sealed. Well, sort of.
“I’m not going to make the same mistake we did 20 years ago, because (Doncic, like Nowitzki at the time) is a 19-year old kid that is going to have his rear end handed to him,” said Donnie Nelson, the Mavs’ president of basketball operations. “He is going to go against the elite of the elite, not only outside our walls, but within our training camp.
“Dirk and I had a long talk coming in. That’s why I want to remain guarded in my comments.”
But then Nelson couldn’t help but reveal the obvious when it comes to analyzing Doncic.
“We’re obviously very excited to have him, but he’s got a very tough road ahead of him,” he said. “Literally it seems like yesterday (when the Mavs acquired Nowitzki) and when you get a guy like Dirk of his size, the first guy, the comparisons of Larry Bird roll off the tongue.
“Well, that’s. . .Dirk wasn’t done any favors in his first two years.”
The underlying lessons learned from the Dirk-Bird comparisons when it comes to Doncic?
“We’re going to steer away from any of those comparisons,” Nelson said. “Luka is his own guy. He’s got his own challenges.”
Besides Nelson, coach Rick Carlisle also weighed in, adding that the comparison game is categorically unnecessary when it comes to describing Doncic and the skill set he’s able to bring to the court.
“This kid has really carved out an amazing record of accomplishments,” Carlisle said. “I think he comes to the NBA on his own merits and I think going forward he should be judged on being the first Luka Doncic and not the second coming of this guy or that guy or the other guy, and I think that’s fair based on what he’s done.”
While playing for Real Madrid this past season, Doncic was named the Most Valuable Player of the EuroLeague as he put his stamp on being that league’s most prolific player. He also was the MVP of the EuroLeague Final 4 after he led Real Madrid to the championship last week.
Still, while the Mavs are well aware that Doncic was arguably the best player in this year’s NBA Draft, making the transition from European basketball to the NBA is not always an easy proposition. It also isn’t an easy proposition making the transition from NCAA basketball to the NBA.
“He’s got his work cut out,” Nelson said. “It’s a whole different level from where he’s played to where he’s about to play.
“He’s going to be pushed and challenged and chiseled.”
All of that dissecting aside, the Mavs are well aware of what they have in Doncic. That’s why they shipped the No. 5 pick in this year’s draft and a protected No. 1 pick in next year’s draft to the Atlanta Hawks to secure Doncic, who was the third pick in last Thursday’s draft.
Teams already in the Top 5 don’t move up a mere two spots in the draft to land a player unless their eyes and scouts tell them they’re on the verge of landing someone who can truly change their franchise’s landscape for many years to come. Such is the case with Doncic.
The Mavs view Doncic teaming up with 20-year old point guard Dennis Smith Jr. and giving NBA backcourts severe migraine headaches for the next decade and beyond. They also see a potential seismic shift that could also make the Mavs an attractive free agent destination for the next decade and beyond.
“He’s definitely got the special stuff that as he puts in the work is going to be a special player for us,” Nelson said. “If you look at his achievements across the board – whether it’s youth, national team, Spain – it’s very rare air. It’s special stuff.”
Nelson discussed how Nowitzki “got thrown around like a rag doll” during his first two NBA seasons before elevating his game to superstar status. He hopes Doncic can avoid getting thrown around like a rag doll, but gladly welcomes the possible elevation of his game to superstar status.
“When you have a young guy like Dennis that just went through that, to have a person of Luka’s age as well as a guy like Dirk that has seen and done it all in basketball, you get both perspectives and both are extremely valuable,” Nelson said. “It’s not lost on Luka how unique of an opportunity to play with one of the all-time greats in his golden years.”
Playing in the NBA period, is a dream come true for Doncic, a 6-7, 218-pound multi-purpose guard from Slovenia.
“When I came up I was playing with older guys and saw that maybe I could be somebody,” Doncic said. “When they say you’re going to be good, I like to be challenged.
“When they say you’re not going to be good, I say, ‘Let’s see.’ When I step on the court I need to show it. No matter the (draft) pick you are, you need to show it on the court.”
In a matter of a few months, Doncic will have an opportunity to show the stuff of which he is made of. Until then, the Mavs believe the comparisons to any other former or current NBA player is completely unnecessary.