The rise of Luka Doncic happened faster than anyone predicted

Ball Boy, too young to tie his sneakers, made a big impression on Goran Dragic.

The child was the son of a veteran of Geoplin Slovan, the first club in the Adriatic League, where Dragic began his professional career. The boy, who was 5 years old when he first met Dragic, always had a basketball in his hand and shot every time the basket was open. He sometimes entertained the crowd with dribbles in midfield.

It’s very hard to predict what the future will look like, Dragic says in more than a decade and a half. But all I can say is that he had a passion for basketball when he was a kid.

Luka Doncic had quickly outgrown his part-time management and entertainment duties.

Dragic was not surprised when he later learned that Real Madrid, the Euroleague powerhouse, had accepted Doncic into their academy at the age of 13. He dominated the juniors and made headlines in his native Slovenia.

Everyone started talking about him, Dragic says. At that age, we realized he was probably special.

Dragic had no hesitation after sharing the backcourt with Doncic at the 2017 Eurobasket tournament, where they led Slovenia to their first title. Dragic was named MVP of the tournament, but he was convinced Doncic would become a star after the then 18-year-old excelled against NBA players, showing a strange combination of fighting spirit and composure under pressure.

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He will be the best player in Europe in a few years, believe me. Even in the NBA, Dragic explained after the championship game.

Trust me, he’ll be one of the best in the world.

Dragic has proven himself. After all, Doncic became the youngest MVP in Euroleague history after leading Real Madrid to the ACB League and the following season to the Euroleague. After two seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, he was named Rookie of the Year and a member of the NBA’s first team, among other things. In doing so, he became the first player to do so in his second season since Tim Duncan was inducted into the Hall of Fame. At age 21, Doncic entered his third season in the NBA as the MVP favorite.

Dramatic expectations aren’t the only thing Doncic has insanely exceeded. Soic somehow managed to become both the most prominent international candidate in basketball history and a largely underrated candidate when he made his entrance at the sport’s first level.

I thought he would need a little more time to develop and understand the NBA style and the game, Dragic said. I knew that in four or five years he would be one of the best players in the league. But, yes, he proved me wrong.

It was a lot faster.

Luka Doncic and Goran Dragic helped Slovenia win the 2017 European Basketball Championship against Serbia. EPA/TOLGA BOZOGLU

When Josh RICHARDSON returned to Miami after training on the West Coast, he was eager to talk about one of his training partners.

Yo, I just met a guy who remembers Richardson telling his friends. He will be the first choice of the project.

It was the summer of 2016, and Richardson, playing in his first season with the Miami Heat, was training at the P3 facility in Santa Barbara, California, under the watchful eye of biomechanics experts in the morning and playing a world-class pick in the afternoon.

In Spain, the buzz around Doncic was similar to that generated by Zion Williamson at Duke, according to Salah Mehri, who played for Real Madrid at the time, and the Mavs when Doncic arrived in the NBA.

If he played against boys his own age, he would kill them! says Mejri. We’ve always checked his figures.

But Richardson had never heard of the young Slovenian girl who was in the same gym one morning. Doncic has just completed his first full season with Real Madrid’s top team, and his agent Bill Duffy, who also represents Richardson, has offered to coach both players locally.

There’s no way, Richardson recalls, that anyone would have told him this broad-shouldered 0-year-old was a 16-year-old. After Doncic showed a fluid shot, accurate footwork and a rare dexterity for a player of his stature, Richardson was surprised.

Soic drove Richardson crazy on the pick-and-roll, hit several jumpers with a step back, threw some good passes and set the pace in a game with established pros.

He did. He realized that Richardson remembered thinking about himself.

I still think he should have been [the first choice], added Richardson, who is now Doncic’s backcourt partner after switching off-season.

I knew that in four or five years he would be one of the best players in the league. But, yes, he proved me wrong. It was a lot faster.

Heat guard Goran Dragic

Soic was the third pick in the 2018 NBA draft, as the Mavs have a bilateral deal with the Atlanta Hawks. Dallas has always considered Doncic the best prospect in the class – by far, says Basketball Operations President Donnie Nelson – and the team’s European scouts have followed Doncic closely since he joined Real Madrid’s youth program.

Nelson first saw him in person at Doncic’s third pro game at age 15. He came to Europe to see Real Madrid play against lower level teams, knowing that at that age Doncic would not play much against elite opponents.

Every time I visited him, it was another confirmation of his unique and special character, says Nelson, who has long had an affinity for European talent, since he facilitated the arrival of Sarunas Marciulionis from Lithuania in 1989, who played for the Golden State Warriors team coached by his father, Don.

Nelson was the first member of the Mavs organization to see a German prodigy named Dirk Nowitzki as a lottery target, and was convinced long before Doncic’s announcement that the Slovenian teenager could be a worthy successor.

He really made some noise, which Donnie never does, said Mike Procopio, former Mavs director of player development.

We’ve seen Donnie Nelson do it over and over again, Duffy says.

I thought, and I thought [Doncic] could play the leader, that he was like a cross between Magic and Bird. It was the first thing I saw. It’s a triple machine. I saw it, and then Donnie saw it. All I remember is that he spoke: He’s a leader of men. He’s like magic.

You’re absolutely right.

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Nelson unsuccessfully lobbied Greek Giannis Antetokounmpo in Dallas in 2014, but switched owners Mark Cuban in 2018. Soic was targeted when the Mavs went down to the wire in the 2017-18 season. Commissioner Adam Silver has fined Cuba $600,000 for public comments that harmed the NBA after the billionaire aired a podcast mid-season in which he told the team’s veterans that losing was the best option.

When Dallas, after a 24-58 season and a third chance to win the lottery, landed in fifth place, Nelson was thrown out. I was really devastated, Nelson says.

Soic was never considered the best player in the draft, as Deandre Ayton finished first for the Phoenix Suns and Marvin Bagley III finished first for the Sacramento Kings. Some wondered if Doncic had reached his peak, as Duffy said, and wondered if such a brilliant player could improve.

To be honest, I was always happy when he had a game or didn’t look very athletic, Nelson says, bursting into laughter. I was encouraging him to blow it at the EC [a few days before the draw].

I just wanted him to fall!

Luka Doncic and Dirk Nowitzki will share the field for the 2018-19 season. The Mavericks saw Doncic as the ideal successor to the future Hall of Famer, who will retire in 2019. Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Many NBA members doubted that Doncic, who stood over 6 feet tall and weighed over 230 pounds, would be able to play as a point guard in the NBA. A talent scorer on the team that selected him for the draw a little later compared him to Hedo Turkoglu, a nimble striker with positional playmaking abilities – a good player, but far from a superstar.

Mavs coach Rick Carlisle admits that even he thought Doncic’s position in the NBA was unclear when he studied his European film. He knew that Doncic had the intelligence and vision to be a great ball defender, but he wasn’t sure that a player of this size could play at the top against the best athletes in the world.

There’s a sense that the big strong players just can’t do it because they’re not fast enough, Carlisle said. But one of the things you learn about Luke from seeing him day after day is that he is not only strong, but also fast and powerful and treacherous in all these areas.

It took Carlisle about two days to see Doncic play basketball at the Mavs’ training facility in the fall before the start of his rookie season.

He played all the way to the end and saw everything, he made incredible passes so easily, Carlisle said. It affected all parts of the game. It took a lot of turns. He found people in time. It was clear he could play, shall we say, point guard.

There was only one problem: That position has already been taken by last year’s lottery player Dennis Smith Jr. and all the starters who have identified the Mavs as promising for the future. Doncic officially began his NBA career as an attacker and shared assistant duties with Smith, although the latter had a larger share of positional play duties as he struggled to pass the ball.

I was happy when he had a game or, frankly, he didn’t look very athletic. I encouraged him to blow it at the European Championships. I just wanted him to fall!

Donnie Nelson, president of the Mavericks.

Doncic made his first appearance as a playmaker six weeks after Smith missed due to injury, scoring 15 points and eight assists in a home victory over the Boston Celtics. Doncic averaged 19.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.8 assists in 11 games in December, while Smith was absent from all but one game due to injury.

The Mavs quickly came to the conclusion that they needed to separate from Smith to maximize Doncic’s potential, which Nelson admitted he expected to happen before Doncic’s arrival. In late January 2019, Smith was part of a package Dallas sent to the New York Knicks as part of the Kristaps Porzingis trade.

The first year we were trying to figure it all out, Nelson says. How soon can we get [Doncic] in this position? Things really took off when we closed the deal in New York…

He was born to be a quarterback.

Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

DONCIC RAN AWAY will be honored as the 2019 Rookie of the Year, but he made such a leap in his second season that he averaged 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game, making him the best of the finalists. The only players to score points in the match box during the season with stats that match or exceed Doncic’s stats in these categories: Oscar Robertson (four times) and Russell Westbrook during his MVP season in 2016-17.

Soic was more productive in the playoffs (31.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, 8.7 assists) when the Mavs forced the Clippers to play six games despite losing Porzingis with an interim knee injury.

As soon as you passed the ball to him, you could tell he was moving a little bit – everything was going through him, says Procopio, who left the Mavs after Doncic’s recruitment. You could say he could be an MVP.

This is now the norm for the Donsik, which should open on the 28th. February 22nd is the 22nd anniversary. He would become the youngest MVP in NBA history if he receives this honor this season.

It’s good and bad, said Doncic, whose fitness was scrutinized in the first weeks of the season after returning from a short off-season with a few extra pounds. A lot of people expect a lot from me. There’s a lot of pressure on you, but on the other hand, people know I can do it.

These high expectations also create a sense of urgency that is not common when building a team around such a young superstar.

Dallas accelerated the rebuilding process during Doncic’s recruiting season. The biggest operation was the acquisition of a potential star in Porzingis. The Mavs also traded Harrison Barnes, the team’s top scorer last season, before this year’s deadline, motivated by the move to flexible pay. Dallas was planning to target another superstar next summer, a strategy that came to a halt when players who wanted to become free agents negotiated overtime with their current teams.

The Mavs have remained aggressive in finding other playmakers around Doncic, such as. B. the mid-season swap of the excellent Seth Curry for a Richardson cap, a decision made because Dallas believed that better defense was the only way to come back.

Despite the Mavs 8-10’s bumpy start, the hype around Doncic is growing.

The doubts that have persisted since his arrival in the NBA as the most experienced European teenager in history have given way to a sense of anticipation that only a handful of players can master. And it happened much faster than many had predicted.

At any moment, Carlisle says, you can see something you’ve never seen before.

I played with Byrd. I watched it three years in a row. It was a thrill watching it every night. Magic Johnson was that kind of player. That’s right, LeBron James is one of those players too. These guys can do anything on the basketball court.

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