Mavericks' Luka Doncic has the 'look' of a superstar during a historic rookie season, but what exactly does that mean?
It's easy to see there's something special about Doncic, but trying to define it isn't quite as simple
OAKLAND, Calif. -- When Mavericks owner-slash-reality TV star Mark Cuban is done hearing a pitch from a sweaty, nervous entrepreneur on "Shark Tank," and he ultimately makes the decision to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars, occasionally he'll justify it by telling the entrepreneur something to the effect of, "I'm not 100 percent sold on the idea, but I'm sold on you." The idea can always be changed or tweaked, but there's just something about the person that makes Cuban want to work with them and give them his full support.
So it's not hard to see why Cuban and the Mavericks zeroed in on Slovenian wunderkind Luka Doncic early on in the draft process, then traded a 2019 first-round draft pick to the Hawks in order to get him. As Doncic nears the end of what will likely be a Rookie of the Year campaign -- a trophy he can place next to his EuroLeague MVP and EuroLeague Final Four MVP trophies on his mantle -- it's not just his historic numbers that stand out. Sure, he's on pace to become the only NBA rookie besides Oscar Robertson to average over 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game, but there's just something else about Luka -- an intangible quality so many have struggled to identify.
"Transcendent is difficult to define," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of Doncic before the rookie went out and dropped a triple-double on his team in a 35-point win at Oracle Arena. "I think Dirk [Nowitzki] transcended the game because of that unique skill set from the position he's in. I think, if anything, Luka looks more like a descendant, you know, of Dirk's, of Kevin Durant's, of these playmaking wings who are big and can handle the ball and can play with skill, but also dominate the game, sort of just with their presence. For a rookie to do what he's doing, he's got that look, where, OK, that's an All-Star, that's gonna be the cornerstone of the franchise. From that point, you know, who knows? But that's a pretty good start."
It's not the first time that someone has talked about Doncic's "presence," or said he has "the look" of a superstar, or that he just has "IT" -- capital "I," capital "T." Continuing the reality TV show theme, it's what former "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell used to call "star quality," before telling a teary-eyed teenager that they didn't possess it. Luka, however, certainly does.
Doncic isn't the first player to exude the look and feel of a can't-miss star early in his career -- Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James all had it, just to name a few -- but what is it, exactly? How do you define it? Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle tried his best to put it into words, saying that the appeal of his 20-year-old franchise building block goes well beyond his polished dribbling, passing and shooting skills.
"He plays with an enthusiasm and a joy, and he smiles a lot. And so, generally speaking, people relate to him, and he's got a huge following," Carlisle said. "Every single place we go, there's a mob of people that want to talk to him, want to get his autograph, want to get different kinds of things signed, etc., etc. So, you know, it's kind of a combination of everything that he's had going this year."
It's interesting that Carlisle brought up that smile, an infectious grin that instantly reminds you that this 6-foot-7, 220-pound assassin just ceased being a teenager about a month ago. Doncic's smile comes out at times you'd expect -- after a clutch step-back 3-pointer or a picture-perfect lob to a teammate -- but it also comes out after mistakes. Case in point, Doncic was on an absolute roll during the first quarter of Saturday's win over the Warriors, burying three 3s in a span of a minute. On the next possession, he pulled up for the ultimate heat-check -- a bomb from a couple of steps inside the logo. The shot fell short, which led to an uncontested run-out dunk for Kevin Durant.
It was just the type of momentum-changer that can spark the lethal Warriors to cut a 13-point deficit to zero in about four possessions, and Carlisle immediately called a timeout as he walked onto the court while scratching his glistening, hairless scalp. Doncic knew he was in for a good scolding, at the very least a death stare, but what did he do as he walked to the huddle to meet his teammates? He smiled.
"A lot of times when I don't smile, when I'm not having fun playing the game, then I play bad," a soft-spoken Doncic said after the Warriors game. "I think that's a little bit of a secret for me."
Doncic's positive energy is contagious, evidenced by his ear-to-ear grin as he snuck up and grabbed Mavs assistant Darrell Armstrong in the locker room before the Warriors game. Or when he mischievously inquired as to the whereabouts of teammate and former Florida star Dorian Finney-Smith ("Where's Do-Do at?"), as the Mavs watched the Gators fall further and further behind Michigan in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Or when he attempted to throw a lob pass to Dwight Powell during pregame warm-ups -- by bouncing the ball off his own head.
The attitude is certainly part of the star quality people can't seem to put their finger on -- the smile, in particular, hearkens back to a young, Showtime-era Magic -- but in trying to describe exactly what it is, Doncic revealed another attribute common among most greats in any field, not just athletics: A chip on his shoulder.
"I don't know, I mean (laughs). Just, you know, I think that I can play, you know, I can play in this league," Doncic said when asked what he thinks Kerr meant by saying he has the look of a superstar. "A lot of people didn't think so, but I think I've shown some of them that I can play."
Doncic had die-hard supporters coming into the draft, some pegging him as the best international prospect in basketball history, but on draft day he saw two names called ahead of his -- Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III -- before being drafted by Atlanta and immediately dealt to Dallas. Those perceived slights stick with players, and the fact that Doncic brought it up shows how it could help fuel the evolution of his game in what promises to be a long and decorated career.
"I say it all year -- for a 19-20 year old, his overall aura and game is really impressive," the 40-year-old Nowitzki said of Doncic after his final game at Oracle Arena. "Luka's already a confident young player, and he's already found his way. Sky's the limit if he keeps working and stays injury-free. He's gonna be fun to watch for this franchise for a long, long time."
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