That's Pretty Interesting: Everybody wants to be Luka Doncic, a freakish young superstar leaving peers in awe
The 20-year-old Mavs star is impressing not only coaches and teammates but anyone who observes him mastering the game
NEW YORK -- Contrary to popular belief, lightning can strike when the sky is blue and a thunderstorm is tens of thousands of miles away. "Superbolts," which can release thousands of times more energy than a regular bolt, only represent about one out of every 250,000 lightning bolts, but they typically tend to occur in unexpected places. Scientists do not know exactly what causes them.
Luka Doncic, similarly, can strike at any time. Defenders think they have him contained until they don't. Passes go from just about anywhere to just about anywhere. "Anything is a possibility with him," Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson said. Mavericks big man Maxi Kleber called him a "one-in-a-whatever talent." He leaves teammates, opponents and fans dumbfounded.
"He does some -- many -- amazing things," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said, catching himself in danger of underselling his star. "It's to a point where you almost expect to see something new on a daily or weekly basis. At least."
An adage about watching greatness is that merely looking away for a second risks missing something spectacular. Like when, with 7-foot shot-blocker Mitchell Robinson flying at him in the corner, Doncic drew a foul and swished a one-legged flip shot with his foot on the 3-point line:
Or when, in between three defenders converging on his drive, he shoveled a preposterous pinpoint pass past a fourth for an open 3:
That first one happened last Thursday, part of a 33-point, 10-rebound, 11-assist performance against the New York Knicks, after which Knicks coach David Fizdale said he will "definitely" push Dirk Nowitzki, now Doncic's former teammate, for the title of greatest European player of all-time. The second happened on Monday, part of a 42-point, 12-assist, 11-rebound performance against the San Antonio Spurs, after which LeBron James called him "one BAD MOFO!!!!!" in an Instagram story.
If there was any doubt that he is having a moment, it was erased by Fox Sports 1 talking heads: On Tuesday, Nick Wright said Doncic will be a Hall of Famer "if he never improves one percent," and Shannon Sharpe called him "the closest thing we've seen to Larry Bird."
All Doncic had to do to make television commentators rhapsodize about him the way draft analysts did a year and a half ago is average an obscene 29.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 9.3 assists while combining a 34.7 percent usage rate with a 61.2 percent true shooting percentage, per Basketball-Reference, and orchestrate the league's second-best offense. But those numbers, incredible as they might be, do not by themselves account for the way in which his peers are in awe of him.
"Fans think he's obviously very good," Brunson said. "But he brings an aspect to the game where basketball players around the league really just kind of sit back and watch what he's doing. Because he's doing something crazy."
Doncic probably wouldn't have been available to Dallas in a draft-night deal if there wasn't some concern around the league that he had just average athleticism, which is only true if you think it is a synonym for leaping or sprinting. Few players can stop on a dime like him, and even among the tiny fraction of players who have similar court vision, most are not 6-foot-7, with the balance and strength to fling the ball all over the court on the move and in a crowd. "His skill level is right up there with Stephen [Curry]," Brandon Payne, Curry's trainer, told NBC Sports' Tom Haberstroh on a recent podcast. Like Curry, Doncic allows you to believe that, with enough work, you might be able to do what he does. Doncic's touch and ability to read the game on the fly, though, are probably better understood as superpowers.
Mavs wing Ryan Broekhoff said he has never seen Doncic rush. When he makes a move, "it's quick, it's sharp, it's right by the defender." If an opponent manages to cut him off, he has crossovers, a spin, any counter he could need.
"He doesn't have a 42-inch vertical, he's not blisteringly fast, but he uses his smarts and he knows how to use his body to create angles and get defenders on his hips," Broekhoff said. "And he's just so smart and so strong when he gets you in that position that you're kind of just to his will. Whatever he wants to do, he's going to do. Although you try your hardest, he just finds ways. It's kind of too hard to teach. You can try and take things from [watching] it, but to do that naturally is a gift."
Doncic is a master of hesitation, deception and positioning, a pain to play against and a joy to play with -- as long as you get used to the ball flying your way out of nowhere. Kleber said this can happen even when you don't realize that you're open.
"Whenever you think you're not going to get it, that's probably when you're going to get it," Broekhoff said.
Even if you have watched every second of every Mavericks game this season -- or, like me, watched all of Doncic's pick-and-rolls and isolations on Synergy for "research" -- you have not, however, seen all of his tricks. In the moments between light shooting and stretching at the beginning of a recent practice, Doncic made a shot from behind the backboard, then one off the shot clock. When the Mavs end practices with H-O-R-S-E-style shooting games, no one can compete with him.
"He'll just come and do something just another step higher than everyone's done," Broekhoff said. "Over the backboard, from in the tunnels or full-court shots. He does it, but it's just kind of normal for him. He does his stuff and it's just kind of like, 'Yep, thanks.' It's not like a huge celebration."
"He can shoot like a rainbow shot from halfcourt and make it go in," Kleber said, "when everybody else is just trying to shoot a regular shot and trying to make it."
The Mavericks' practice facility does not have a particularly high ceiling, so rainbows are impossible. Three-quarter-court shots should be, too, but Doncic "somehow banks it in" from that distance, according to Broekhoff. Like superbolts to scientists, Doncic is a curiosity. He is turning Dallas' regular-season games into appointment viewing, and he is in complete command of the game, in better shape than ever before and in the way-too-early MVP conversation. Broekhoff said that he routinely does "things that you just don't think should be done or can be done," praising him for bringing fun and excitement but lamenting that Doncic "just makes me feel bad" because he makes it look so easy.
"Everybody wants to be Luka," Kleber said.
An airing of grievances
- I don't find the Philadelphia 76ers particularly fun anymore, and they have to work way too hard to get decent looks.
- The Atlanta Hawks, owners of the league's worst offense (per Cleaning The Glass) have scored a perfectly fine 108.4 points per 100 possessions with Trae Young on the court and a miserable 89.6 per 100 without him (per NBA.com).
- The Milwaukee Bucks have an awesome statistical profile again, but I can't get past their decision not to keep Malcolm Brogdon.
These gripes are loosely related. Every time I watch any of these teams, there are stretches where I hate the shape of the offense. This can be directly traced to the way these three rosters were constructed. Philadelphia went all-in on size at the expense of playmaking and shooting, and it still has a subpar bench. Atlanta decided to turn Evan Turner into its backup point guard instead of signing one. Milwaukee, after losing in the conference finals largely because it didn't have a diversity of offensive options, exacerbated that issue. These problems were predictable.
What is this?
LeBron, stop it.
What is THIS?
10 more stray thoughts: I have so many more Luka clips saved on my laptop … No recent team has disappointed me more than the Chicago Bulls have so far this season … Keep an eye on Nasir Little … The Rockets are playing defense again … Something has to change in San Antonio … I remain skeptical about Rajon Rondo fitting with LeBron despite Frank Vogel saying Rondo's impact is "measured in swag" … The revival of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has been a heartening story … Here is a genuinely delightful oral history … It's kind of nuts that Miami is still second in defense (per CTG) despite Justise Winslow missing all this time … Bogdan Bogdanovic!
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