SAN FRANCISCO -- Luka Doncic is taking over the NBA. After a career of unprecedented accomplishments in Europe, Doncic waltzed to the NBA Rookie of the Year trophy last season. Everyone knew he was going to be a good player, but not even Doncic's most ardent supporters expected him to be this good this soon.
Entering the Mavericks' 141-121 win over the Golden State Warriors on Saturday, Doncic was averaging 29.1 points, 9.6 rebounds and 8.1 assists on the season, and had established himself as one of a handful of legitimate NBA MVP candidates by leading the Mavericks' ascent to the Western Conference's elite. The 20-year-old helped out those averages by putting up a ridiculous stat line of 31 points, 15 assists and 12 rebounds in just 30 minutes on Saturday.
"Doncic was amazing tonight. Absolutely amazing," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said after the game. "To have a 30-point triple-double in three quarters, and really made it look easy, that's a phenomenal performance. He set the table for everybody that was out there."
But, as with most superstars, Doncic transcends stats and advanced metrics -- he has a certain star quality that according to NBA.com, and this season that will likely skyrocket. He also got the third-most All-Star votes of any NBA player last season, even though he didn't make the team, trailing only LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. A blizzard of historic proportions is the only thing that could keep Doncic out of this season's All-Star Game in Chicago.. He plays the game with a zest, a flair, an enthusiasm that has created a cult following from basketball fans across the world. Last season he was 13th in the league in jersey sales,
His rapid transition from good player to superstar and potential face of the league reminds us of another player's meteoric rise: Stephen Curry. As Doncic manhandled the Warriors in the Bay Area on Saturday night, the comparisons were unavoidable -- not in terms of their style of play necessarily, but in terms of their enthusiasm for the game and their ability to instantly form lasting connections with fans.
"I think just playing with a smile on your face is something relatively unique. Most guys are locked in and they are pretty serious," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "I watched Luka the other night against San Antonio in his first game back and he's out there smiling and laughing, and that is similar to Steph. I think fans love that and they want to see the players enjoying themselves. He's an amazing player. ... He's got a great skill set and approach to the game. He's great for the league and we are lucky to have him in the league."
In a world full of social media personas that often present a skewed picture of someone's true personality, Doncic wears his emotions on his sleeve, and the fans recognize it as the real thing. You could tell by the three young fans screaming "Luka! Luka!" while Doncic went through his pregame warm-ups on Saturday, desperately trying to get him to offer a glance in their direction (perhaps not coincidentally, all three were wearing Steph Curry jerseys).
"He's amazing. He's so genuine," said Mavericks fan Danielle Ferreira, who was in attendance at Chase Center for Saturday's game. "He just smiles and seems like he's having so much fun."
We haven't had the luxury of seeing Curry smile much this season -- at least not on the court -- but we saw it plenty of times during the Warriors' journey to five straight NBA Finals. Even now, as he recuperates from a broken hand, he's taking on the role of cheerleader with the same energy and cherubic glee that he displays on the court. Just watch him throughout this sequence from the Warriors' win over the Suns on Friday.
Like most aspiring basketball players, Doncic admires and emulates Curry in certain ways. He even worked out with Curry shortly after being drafted in 2018, and was astonished by what he saw.
"He's somebody that everybody looks up to. Everybody wants to be like him," Doncic said of Curry. "I remember last year after the draft I practiced once with him. It was crazy. He couldn't miss. Like, he can't miss. That was something I'll always remember, that practice with him."
But just like Curry, Doncic has a competitive streak that sometimes replaces the smile with a scowl or piercing glare. Doncic had plenty to smile about against the Warriors on Saturday -- even after he got blocked by Marquese Chriss on a floater attempt, he donned his signature grin. But the grin disappeared quickly when he and Chriss got into it afterward, concluding with Chriss shoving Doncic to the floor.
Mavericks forward Kristaps Porzingis applauded the way Doncic reacted to the situation (only Chriss was assessed a technical foul) and said that Doncic is a pretty cool customer on the court, particularly for his age. But there's one environment where he sees a different side of his normally docile teammate.
"I saw it more -- not angry, but kind of emotional and into it -- he's also like that with us, but I saw it more when he was with the Slovenian national team," Porzingis, a Latvian, said after the win over the Warriors. "That's when you really, like, you don't play for money, you just play for passion there. The Slovenians, they're really passionate, and you could see more emotion out of him. But he's a great teammate, always supporting his teammates and being smart in situations when he needs to be smart and cool."
It's impossible to say whether Doncic will have the transformational impact on the game of basketball that Curry has cemented over the past few seasons, but it's safe to say that his popularity will at least approach Curry's if the Mavericks continue to have success. Though he seems impervious to the aging process, LeBron James can't play forever. When he finally retires, the league will need a new face, and Doncic is making an early bid to take the throne.
"One of the real things you see in players like Steph Curry and Luka Doncic and LeBron James and guys like that is they have a real love for the game," Carlisle said. "I mean, they would be playing it even if they weren't professionals getting paid. You can just tell by the way they approach it."