In recent years I’d heard the loudening chants: there’s a basketball prodigy in Europe named Luka Doncic and in 2018 he’s going to descend on the NBA and immediately become a “transformational” player. Okay, I thought, let me check him out. I watched highlight tapes and read scouting reports, and concluded his average speed and jumping ability meant he’d be a solid but unspectacular NBA starter who might someday make an all star game or two. Granted, Doncic had only turned 19 and could shoot from distance and drive and pass and rebound and make clutch baskets and play decent team defense, but I assumed he probably wouldn’t perform as well against NBA athletes.
Even as this season unfolded and Doncic excelled some games, dropping 31 points on San Antonio and the now-legendary four-basket, 11-point hammer the final three minutes against Houston, I didn’t join the legion of fans who daily raved the handsome Slovenian is a veritable Larry Bird in the backcourt. After recently watching the Mavericks play the Clippers, however, I discovered two-thirds of my notes concerned Doncic and concluded I, too, may become addicted to performances like this. In the first quarter he hit a three-pointer and a floater and a jumper, and in the second sank six of eight free throws to tally 13 points by half. “Mavs down 11, imagine what it would be without Luka,” I texted a friend. In the third quarter he twice navigated inside, absorbed contact, made his baskets, and sank free throws. He soon hit another free throw and a three pointer and a jumper and, following a pump fake, a basket that drew another foul. He missed the free throw, finishing the quarter with 14 points and 27 total as the Mavs trailed by seven.
Coach Rick Carlisle restrained himself the first seven and a half minutes of the fourth quarter, keeping his six-foot-seven star on the bench as veteran backup guards J.J. Barea and Devin Harris shot and passed the rallying Mavericks into a tie at 109. Doncic then returned to assist towering De’Andre Jordan, and Dallas suddenly led by two. Three Clippers – persistent Danilo Gallinari, sweet-shooting Lou Williams, and strongman Montrezl Harrell – responded with 10 straight points before Doncic, tightly guarded, dribbled and drove fifty feet fast for a layup, Barea swished a three and Doncic a step back three, his specialty, to slash the deficit to two with a couple of seconds left. The Clippers sank two free throws and won by four. I sent and received texts throughout the event. I don’t know what would’ve happened if Doncic hadn’t played in this game, but it wouldn’t have been as fun.
At this point I’m obligated to warn there could be some worrisome developments in the land of Luka. In October he made 45.8 percent of his shots and an even 40 from three-point land. Those figures slid to 43.3 and 36.8 in November. And for December, as of the 21st, they’ve slipped to 39.6 and 28.9. Is the man tiring during the rigors of an NBA campaign? Probably a little. Are other teams figuring out how to more closely contest his creative but not lightning moves? That’s part of it. Is he doing anything better this Christmas season? Yes, his rebounds and assists, at 7.3 and 6.5, are his highest and becoming historically significant for a guard. Rebounds and assists are generally weatherproof. Luka Doncic does too many things well to be shut down.