How Luka Doncic fell to Mavs in NBA Draft, why it's the perfect marriage and the regret one team is already voicing

At 19 years old, Luka Doncic isn't just playing like the clear leading candidate for Rookie of the Year -- he's playing like an All-Star, if not something more than that. Entering Monday, Doncic is averaging 18.1 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. Just seven other players in the league are hitting those marks across the board, and six of them -- LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook and Victor Oladipo -- were All-NBA players last season. 

And to think, three teams passed on Doncic in this past June's draft. Why? Well, for starters, Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley, who went first and second overall to the Suns and Kings, respectively, are good players with upside. At No. 3, the Hawks traded Doncic's rights to Dallas for Trae Young, who was just named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, and the Mavs' 2019 first-round pick -- and it's that extra pick, depending how it turns out, that might end up justifying that trade down the road for an Atlanta organization that's in the long-game business of compiling multiple assets. 

Still, it's pretty clear that Doncic is the cream of his class. 

"There is no doubt in my mind that [Luka] should have been the No. 1 pick," Chris Thomas, a former NBA scout with the Bulls, Jazz and Warriors who is now coaching professionally in Doncic's native Slovenia, told CBS Sports. "He is that rare player who was the most ready to contribute right away and has an incredibly high ceiling."

The part about Doncic's ceiling stands out. On Sunday, Kings coach Dave Joerger all but admitted Sacramento made a mistake by passing on Doncic when he said: "Perhaps there was an idea that there was a [low] ceiling on [Luka]. I don't see it, unfortunately for us."

As I've asked around the league, more than one person has told me there was, for some, a "fear of being wrong" about Doncic. In general, predicting the crossover success of European players remains something of a crapshoot, and with Doncic specifically, he was so exposed for so long that it became easy to overthink his supposed flaws. 

"I know a lot of teams were worried about his athleticism," Thomas said. "But he is proving time and time again that his intelligence in knowing how to use angles defensively, and utilize effective fakes offensively, have taken him to another level as an athlete."

In the estimation of one rival general manager I've spoken with, there were also questions about Doncic's 3-point shooting. It's a fair point. While Doncic made a lot of big, viral shots in Europe, in terms of consistency, he was just a 30-percent shooter from three last year -- and that was from the shorter international line. He's dipped a bit of late (36 percent entering Monday), but Doncic has been right around 40 percent from 3-point range for much of his rookie season.  

"That is a huge jump," the GM told CBS Sports. 

The result has been an unthinkably polished player for his age, a 6-foot-7 hybrid who, despite possessing multiple objectively elite skills, is best defined by an inability to narrow him down to one. Indeed, Doncic's appeal goes beyond scouted skills or statistical quantification, the it-factor you hear so much about. It's the confidence -- not the bravado that many young players project, but the genuine, forged-in-steel confidence that can only come with having played against legit, grown-men professionals since you were 16, and having distinguished yourself as an MVP among them.

It's the poise, the control, the split second Doncic takes to relax before pulling up. It's the pace, always on his terms -- full-throttle in the open floor, a bit more herky-jerky in close quarters. If you squint, you can see a player who is somewhere between the young and old versions of Paul Pierce and Jason Kidd -- at times a break-leading, deceptively dynamic space creator with a deliberate jumper and sublime vision, at times the crafty, pump-faking old man in the park who will have game forever, a combination that already qualifies Doncic as one of the league's most unique players. 

"The one thing that I have consistently said about [Luka], based on the film, is that the European film didn't show the strength, the size and the quickness that we've seen here," Rick Carlisle told reporters last week. "He's caught some people by surprise, but I'm not surprised at all. [Dallas GM] Donnie Nelson, who I think is as good an evaluator of talent as I've come across in this league, told me over year ago that he thought [Luka] was going to be the best player in this draft. He was pretty certain of it."

In other words, the Mavericks were pinching themselves when Phoenix and Sacramento passed on Doncic, and when Atlanta was willing to deal, they were happy to pull the trigger. Thomas, for one, thinks it was a blessing these three teams passed on Doncic, who is a perfect fit with a Dallas organization that provides him everything he needs, both on and off the court, to be comfortable right away and ultimately reach his full potential. 

We know about the Dirk Nowitzki factor. Yes, Dirk came over in a different time and under very different circumstances, but there is still a familiarity there. Second, the Mavericks' Director of Player Personnel is a guy by the name of Tony Ronzone, who is one of the most highly regarded European scouts in the business. Ronzone knows, and has known, Luka's game as long as anyone in the NBA. 

Then, probably most importantly, you have Rick Carlisle, a championship coach who runs an offense that was seemingly tailor-made for Doncic's skill set -- open and free-flowing, a lot of spread pick and roll, all designed to give creators like Doncic the freedom to make plays in space and on the move, both on and off the ball. 

Don't get it wrong, Doncic would've been great anywhere. Pair him with Devin Booker in Phoenix, or De'Aaron Fox in Sacramento, and there would be plenty to be excited about. But look at Young's situation in Atlanta. He's getting the Steph Curry treatment from defenders because nobody else on the Hawks really scares anyone. Young is a terrific passer, 12th in the league in assists, but he'd be much higher than that if Atlanta wasn't one of the worst shooting teams in the league. Bottom line: Young doesn't have the same kind of personnel alongside him to take full advantage of his creativity. 

The Mavs, who take the court on Tuesday against the Nuggets (9 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), have a point guard in Dennis Smith Jr. who is coming along and allows Doncic be something of an offensive rover -- again, perfect for his versatile skill set. Alongside him in the starting lineup, Doncic has an NBA champion in Harrison Barnes and one of the better rim-roller/lob partners in the league in DeAndre Jordan, with whom he already has great pick-and-roll chemistry. 

You see how Doncic waited until the last second to deliver that pass? That's the pace we're talking about. Nothing speeds him up until he's ready. That's a level of control that usually takes players years to develop, if they ever do. The same can be said for having a true signature move. Only a handful of guys can honestly say they have one, and if they do, it took a while to catch on. Doncic's step-back 3-pointer already borders on unstoppable.

And again ...

And the one we all remember ...

That last step-back capped Luka's personal 11-0 run in money time as the Mavs came back to beat the Rockets after trailing by eight with under three minutes to play. On top of all his skills, the guy just flat-out has a flare for the big moments. You can't teach that. 

You can't teach a lot of the things Doncic has, in fact. And the things you can teach, he'll pick them up. Thomas says Doncic's work ethic has long been well known in Europe, and the people I've spoken to around the league have echoed that sentiment. The guy wants to be great. In Thomas' estimation, that's exactly where he's headed. 

"I truly think he'll be a 10-12-time All-Star and a Hall of Famer when he retires."

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