So, you’re probably wondering how Luka Doncic ended up in this situation.
Nineteen, born at the edge of the millennium, Wonder Boy donning an NBA jersey, walled off on every side, baby-faced and very much put in the corner.
Maybe the rigors of the NBA schedule have gotten to him. In his debut, he was just a lazy weekend or two away from being pudgy, but he has quickly shed the excess. He is slightly lumbering yet undeniably imposing, a lot like the opponent he is sharing the court with in a recent game, the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, the Serb with a visible gut and an ironclad MVP case.
But Doncic is unintimidated. Not only does he belong, the NBA Rookie of the Year frontrunner is leaving his imprint on the game, averaging 18.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists while fueling the Dallas Mavericks’ (15-15) playoff hopes.
After catching the ball in the left corner, Doncic pump-faked to induce Mason Plumlee to lurch at him, pivoted forward and took one dribble to force Jamal Murray to help on a potential baseline drive. Walled off on four sides, Doncic rifled the ball to Wesley Matthews, wide open on the opposite corner.
The Nuggets tried to up the pressure, but really, who hasn’t? Doncic has been a professional since he was 14, when he signed with Real Madrid. Plenty of NBA players have been wunderkinds at that age, AAU-circuit gems with cult YouTube followings. Few have been paid professionals, budding industries with low-price stocks and expensive futures. Doncic has been repeatedly blasé about the pressure of being one of the NBA’s most touted draft prospects, about the colossal task of adjusting to the world’s best basketball league. He takes the work seriously, to be sure. At the least, he loves it too much not to work hard.
“It’s beautiful to see,” teammate Dwight Powell said. “I think everyone in this league really loves the game, but with someone who has that much fun playing and enjoys it so much, even in practice, you can tell he’s going to continue to get better over the next several years.”
Doncic can handle pressure. In fact, he invites it inside, asks if it would like to take a seat and offers up a glass of wine to pair with a five-course dinner. He stews in it, slowing things down and seeing them as they are, cutting through the distractive tactics of NBA defenses — traps and recoveries, warped angles that allow defenders to guard two passing angles at once — and boiling basketball down to its core principles: five-on-five, spread the court, force a commitment from a second defender and exploit it.
What Doncic lacks in brute force and athleticism, he makes up for with a keen sense of his opponents’ tendencies and an ability to use that knowledge to deceive them. Every faked pass is an attempt to bend the defense to his will, every stutter-step an act of persuasion. He is strong and balanced enough to hold the line and watch plays develop under duress, tall enough to see everything no matter where he is on the court.
And if he doesn’t like what he’s seeing, he rarely settles, because he’s never out of moves. It’s the principle behind his pass-fakes in the paint, which have turned the likes of Robin Lopez and Rudy Gobert into highlight reels: In the teeth of the defense, grappling with a contested but makeable layup, he instead wonders what more can be squeezed out of one possession, what antics he might be able to pull to get the reaction he wants, an act of desperation turned to beauty.
It all culminates to put the defense in a counterintuitive position: against Doncic, the best reaction might be to never react. By toeing the line of the irrational, Doncic has become one of the NBA’s most convincing tricksters. He sees risks and counters where other players would consider their fates sealed. Most importantly, he doesn’t mind getting in trouble to achieve his means.
“Just have your hands ready, really,” Matthews said about playing with Doncic. “He’s one of those guys that not only has the talent to make every pass but has that mentality. You have to have fearless personality to throw some of the passes that he does throw.”
At the peak of a would-be 3-point shot, Doncic can double-clutch and whip the ball to the opposite corner or find an open cutter. Why jump-pass — and get caught traveling or putting up an errant shot when things don’t work — when you could merely pump-fake? Because the latter only momentarily dupes the opponent. Great defenders will hardly flinch. But a jump-pass is an act of such conviction that it can only be registered as a signal for big men to box out, for guards to turn around and run back down the floor to set up the offense. In those transitory moment, Doncic strikes.
Or gets struck down. Doncic coughs up 3.5 turnovers per game, and oftentimes his constant probing leaves him with nothing but a contested floater.
He has played this way since he was 13 and a 6-foot-2 shooting guard for Real Madrid’s youth team: the ball-fakes, the saucer passes that wait for the play to catch up to his brain, the step-back jumper that puts a cliff between him and his defender. He has spent his career mining the imperfections of every league he played in until he had to eventually move up.
“It’s clear that his experience overseas in big games has helped him prepare for these moments,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle says. “But as we continue to play new opponents and see different situations he’ll continue to grow. It’s not gonna be easy. It’s gonna be very challenging for him.”