By Dwain Price
DALLAS – The rapid and surprising success of rookie playmaker Luka Doncic was a factor in the two major trades the Dallas Mavericks executed over the past week.
So said Donnie Nelson, the Mavs’ president of basketball operations.
“If Luka would have, I think, taken a more traditional trajectory, gone through your typical rookie season, you may not have seen some of these moves,” Nelson said during a Thursday afternoon press conference at American Airlines Center. “That was definitely a factor – with his timing.
“We were expecting a little bit more of a learning curve with Luka. He certainly has caught the world by storm and has just taken everything to a different level and has really taken hold of that quarterback position, and that certainly drove some of the decision-making for us.”
The Mavs drafted Dennis Smith Jr. with the ninth overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft with the distinct intentions of having him becoming their point guard for many, many years. Then they got Doncic – he was the third overall draft pick last summer—in a draft day trade with the Atlanta Hawks with the high hopes that he and Smith could possibly share ballhandling duties.
But when it became crystal clear that Doncic was a more efficient playmaker than Smith, the Mavs had a difficult decision to make. Ultimately, the Mavs shipped DeAndre Jordan, Wesley Matthews, Smith and a pair of first-round picks to the New York Knicks on Jan. 31 for Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke.
Then on Wednesday, the Mavs got some additional salary cap relief when they traded Harrison Barnes to the Sacramento Kings for Zach Randolph and Justin Jackson.
All of this, Nelson explained, was instigated in part because Doncic has been a much more prolific player at this stage of his NBA career than anyone could have imagined.
“I think it surprised a lot of us seasoned veterans that have done business on the other side of the pond — that’s a very rare thing that we’re seeing happening,” Nelson said. “A 19-year old young man compete at this level and do the things that he’s doing at his age is in a lot of ways unprecedented.
“So I think that expedited some of our decision-making. It was a factor for us.”
Doncic is averaging 20.6 points 7.1 rebounds and 5.5 assists, has recorded three triple-doubles in his past seven games, and is the only teenager in NBA history to collect multiple triple-doubles. While Doncic’s play has been absolutely mind-boggling, the mature way he handles himself in the face of double-teams and opponents playing overly aggressive against him has stunned Nelson
“We obviously paid a lot to trade up two spots (to get Doncic in the draft),” Nelson said. “A future potential top five protected pick — that’s a haul, right?
“Again, we felt really, really good. But it’s really surprised us how quickly that he has taken (to the NBA) without your typical rookie-itis.”
Based on what they’ve already accomplished in the NBA, the 19-year old Doncic and 23-year Porzingis are considered to be franchise-type players the Mavs can amply build around. Porzingis was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star squad last year before suffering a season-ending torn left anterior cruciate ligament, and Doncic was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month during the first three months this season.
“We’re riding the Luka wave and the Kristaps wave and trying to surround those guys with the right young core, and the future is really, really bright,” Nelson said. “Everyone knows what Luka can do, we’ve seen what Kristaps can do and some of the other young pieces that we’ve assembled to cover those other positions.
“I think Dallas is really in store for something special.”
Nelson said the Mavs are hopeful of being major players in the free agent market this summer. They have the salary cap space to sign an A-list free agent.
“We will absolutely be active as always,” Nelson said. “It’s going to be very interesting and an opportunistic summer, and we certainly are positioned to make some noise.
“There’s going to be quite a few free agents, and again as you know, there’s household names. But we’ve had good luck with, let’s call it maybe not the quite max-level guys.”
Meanwhile, while the jockeying for free agents takes place, based on what Doncic has already achieved, Nelson has no idea what’s his ceiling.
“It’s hard to tell right now — it really is,” Nelson said. “And that’s, I think, part of the excitement of being a Mavericks management person, owner, fan, coach, is seeing this young man every single day just kind of continue to push the envelope.
“It’s exciting, it’s inspiring, it’s taken our franchise and really opened up a lot of doors.”