Luka Dončić Lives to Put on a Show
This story appears in the December 3, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Luka Dončić found his calling by process of elimination. He was a striker first, but moved on when his love for soccer went unrequited. There were dalliances with handball, volleyball and even swimming. “All these things, I wasn’t that good,” Dončić says. “So, I pick basketball.” Or really, basketball picked him. The power of choice is nothing next to the insistence of prodigy. Whatever say Dončić thought he had in the matter growing up, his talent spoke louder—screaming to every coach who watched him that he needed to be playing on a bigger stage against better competition. At eight Dončić played against 11-year-olds in his native Slovenia. By 13 he had signed with Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid. And at 14 he first caught the interest of the Dallas Mavericks, who were drawn to his game from half a world away.
It was hardly an act of discovery. Real Madrid is one of the best clubs in one of the best basketball leagues in the world. “That’s a well-traveled road, in terms of scouting,” says Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson, whose staff was among the first to fully explore the international basketball scene. There was no moment of epiphany for some canny scout in a barren, third-division gym. Dončić played to packed arenas against real professionals starting at 16. By the time he declared for the 2018 draft as a 19-year-old, he had amassed a more substantive body of work against high-level competition than any prospect in his class—and perhaps ever. Whatever mystery there was surrounding the EuroLeague’s teenage MVP, it could be solved with a simple YouTube search.
Dennis Smith Jr. and Dorian Finney-Smith fell down the rabbit hole. The NBA season is long, and a losing season excruciatingly so. Thanks to a 2–14 start last year, Dallas found out quickly that it wouldn’t be in competition for a playoff spot, which led some of the younger members of the team to wonder what help might be coming in the draft. The two Mavericks called up Dončić’s many, readily available highlights, and in the process they deputized themselves as unofficial scouts. “Got a lot of size,” Smith recalls thinking. “You could tell by some of the plays he was making that he had a real high IQ for the game.” Little did they know that the front office was already sold. A year before Dončić became a Maverick, Nelson told head coach Rick Carlisle that he considered the young Slovene to be the best player in the draft. “Donnie felt he was a completely unique style of international player, someone that you really couldn’t compare to any one guy,” Carlisle says. “I’ve found that to be true.”
Player comparison seems an especially moot point when it comes to Dončić, given that his road to the NBA is without precedent. Before he was drafted ninth in 1998, Dirk Nowitzki was a little-known prospect playing in his hometown of Würzburg, Germany, for a club that no longer fields a professional team. Pau and Marc Gasol, decorated as they were in Europe, couldn’t match the pace of Dončić’s accolades despite being years older. The last European player drafted in the top 10, the Knicks’ Frank Ntilikina in 2017, was the eighth man for a team in France. No player as young as Dončić has ever dominated the EuroLeague and the Spanish ACB league the way he did, winning two MVP trophies and four championships as a teenager.
This may be Dončić’s rookie season in the NBA, but it’s effectively his fourth as a pro. To appreciate Dončić is to embrace this sort of contradiction. There’s so much he has left to learn, and yet there’s a refinement to his game beyond what’s typical of a 19-year-old. “Like a veteran who’s been in the league for 10 years,” Nowitzki says. “That’s how he carries himself.”
That’s been true in the box score as well. Only eight other players in the league have matched Dončić’s nightly averages of points (19.1), rebounds (6.5) and assists (4.2) this season. Seven of those eight were named All-NBA last year. (The eighth, Blake Griffin, was injured for much of the season.) Dončić isn’t just the future of the Mavericks, but their undeniable present. When crunch time came in a November bout with the defending champion Warriors, the entire offense deferred to him. First, the 6' 7'' Dončić brushed off Jonas Jerebko, a 6' 10'', 231-pound Swede, for a go-ahead runner. Moments later, he chased down a contested rebound, earning a trip to the free throw line where he iced the win, one of eight in a 10-game stretch that has made Dallas the league’s most surprising .500 team. Through it all Dončić seemed unfazed. “I live with pressure since I was 15,” he says. “I know about pressure.” In the hustle between postgame interviews, Dončić scrolled through Instagram, the sounds of his own heroics erupting from his phone.
To a defense, the most confounding part of Dončić’s game is how freely he navigates the court. Many of the opponents who guard him are quicker, twitchier wings who should have no problem keeping up, step for step, and yet they watch as Dončić scores on a glide, nudging his way through crowds, his size and strength allowing him to set his own pace. Throw him into a pick-and-roll, and all bets are off. “I think that’s my thing,” Dončić says. Drop under the screen and he’ll rock back into a three. Chase him over and he will slide into the midrange to tease out his options, the entire floor in view.
Already he is an unhurried problem solver, perhaps most in command when he appears to be floundering. This is his game’s most essential deception. What looks like a move rarely is. All Dončić wants is an angle, and he’ll go deep in his bag to get it. “I mean, basketball is not all about speed,” he says. Many of his drives come with a defender on his back—seemingly all over him but locked out of the play by Dončić’s body. This is called being put in jail in basketball parlance, and Dončić plays like a sheriff with a quota.
This is a style of astonishing certainty. Despite all that Dončić accomplished overseas, hand-wringing scouts have fretted for years over how he would adapt to the speed and length of the NBA. The ultimate retort is to control games on his terms. Any opponent looking to put a rookie in his place or prove a point against a hyped European import is all the more likely to fall for one of his fakes. One of the most revolutionary things a young player can do is to wait. Some of the best moves Dončić has made have come from taking an extra beat when others might rush, enticing opponents off their feet and out of position. Every pause is an expression of confidence in the mechanics that make his game work.
“When I first came in, I was super worried,” Nowitzki says. “Am I gonna make it in the league? These kids these days, they just carry themselves different. They know they’re gonna make it. They know they’re gonna succeed.”
If Dončić had any doubt, you’d never know from his flourish with the ball. “I just don’t like to do normal passing,” he says. So instead, his passes bounce between legs, fly behind backs, flutter off for alley-oop dunks. While standing under the rim, Dončić fooled Jazz center Rudy Gobert by faking a pass around the back of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Gobert swiveled, and Dončić smirked his way to an uncontested layup.
“I’ve never seen a guy enjoy the game so much during it,” Mavs guard J.J. Barea says. “If he does something good, he can’t stop smiling. Even in practice.” In a recent session, Dončić got the better of Finney-Smith, an impressive defender in his own right. “It was nasty,” Finney-Smith says. “But he missed.” Dončić didn’t care. Whenever he ran into his teammate in the days after, Dončić would mime the move that duped him.
Dončić may have been born to play basketball, but he lives to put on a show. “We’ve said from day one, he’s almost like a matador,” Nowitzki says. “He loves playing off the crowd, loves to make spectacular plays.” Trying is its own form of daring. Dončić will take step-back threes against Kevin Durant with the game on the line and attempt lobs over some of the tallest players in the league. Then, if he fails, he will shrug and try again. Carlisle, one of the most meticulous coaches in the league, even encourages it. “The thing with a player like Luka: If you restrict him too much, you’ll take away some of his greatest gifts,” Carlisle says. “I can’t do that. We can’t do it.”
To celebrate his first American Thanksgiving, Dončić will sample some of the finest in Texas barbecue. The line to the buffet on this Friday before the holiday snakes through the Mavericks’ offices, blending players and coaches with sales reps. Luka grabs a plate—sausage, salad, macaroni and cheese, a Hawaiian roll—and sits with assistant coach Jenny Boucek, fellow rookie Ryan Broekhoff (who, in his glasses, could easily pass as Ryan from marketing) and a redheaded staffer Nowitzki affectionately refers to as “Ed Sheeran.” Nearby a dessert table carries every variety of pie imaginable. Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell ham it up for a captive audience. An assistant coach shows off his kids, via FaceTime, to fawning team employees. A jersey autographed by former Mav Chandler Parsons is draped mournfully over a cubicle wall.
There is Dirk iconography everywhere, including at least 19 varieties of bobblehead. The man himself holds court at a long fold-out table over a Thanksgiving feast, just like your uncle might.
This is what, in the best of outcomes, Dončić might someday inherit. The Mavs have pointedly deflected comparisons between Dončić and Nowitzki, likely because of the casual cruelty in comparing any rookie with one of the greatest players of all time. There is a meeting room in the Mavs’ offices called Swish 41, decorated with autographed photos commemorating every 5,000-point interval of Nowitzki’s career, up to the 30,000-point milestone he crossed in 2017. Dončić, meanwhile, is closing in on his 500th point. Dirk became Dirk because he was given room to grow into himself. He was the shy immigrant kid once, airdropped into Dallas and left to find his way. Dončić is ahead of the curve: already comfortable in his own skin, already accustomed to living outside his home country and already tested on the court. “He’s basically made to succeed here,” Nowitzki says, “and that’s how he’s been playing.”
The Mavericks understand this to be a special opportunity. They signaled that much when they traded both the No. 5 pick and a future first-rounder to the Hawks to land Dončić on draft night. “Atlanta got a great player in Trae Young,” Carlisle said then. “We get a guy that we think is a franchise foundation piece.” Most every game since has affirmed that notion. Dončić has all the makings of not just a star but also the kind of structural component that Carlisle described. “When I said those things, did I 100% know it?” Carlisle asks now. “No. But I did believe it.”
Other Mavericks found that belief when they first saw Dončić in action. From the team’s September pick-up run came glowing reviews. Dončić, Smith and Finney-Smith—three of the team’s young guards—wound up playing together on the first day. “We ran the whole gym,” Finney-Smith remembers. The beauty of Dončić’s game is that he can play with almost anyone. Carlisle sees him as a four-position player—a sizable forward with a point guard’s feel, plus off-the-ball chops and the strength to work mismatches. Any lineup construction will do, which gives the Mavericks an organic way to control whom Dončić matches up with on defense as he learns the nuances of NBA coverage. “Defense,” Nelson says, “is absolutely an education.”
Also part of the curriculum: strength and conditioning. Over the past year Dončić played, by his own account, in 97 games between league, tournament and international play. Summer league wasn’t as important as getting Dončić some time off. “We just wanted him to get away and rest and recharge and come in fresh,” Nelson says. “He did. He rested, and he didn’t miss any meals. Mom made sure of that.” The Mavericks estimate that Dončić, who is listed at 218 pounds, has already lost between 10 and 15 pounds since the start of training camp, and things will only get harder from here on out. The NBA schedule doesn’t lend itself easily to healthy diets and sleeping patterns. They have to be made a priority. “That’s one of the reasons I like our mixture of youth and veterans, is that these guys are getting this kind of messaging on a consistent basis,” Carlisle says. Dončić is already strong as it is, with the balance to absorb contact. A few years of NBA-caliber nutrition and weight training could make him equal parts unstoppable force and immovable object.
The Mavericks could take Dončić’s development in almost any direction. They began with a veteran staple. “We work all day,” Dončić says, “on floaters.” No shot in the game is a better test of a player’s body control. It combines the footwork of a drive, the stability of a post move and the touch of a jump shot. It generally takes years to master, but Dončić, unsurprisingly, has a knack for it. “The NBA is very much geared toward taking away layups and threes,” Carlisle says. “If you do that, there’s gotta be some in-between. With his size and feel for the game, the floater just makes perfect sense.” Already, Dončić has logged thousands of floaters in workouts with the Mavs, ranging in speed and delivery to mimic the unpredictability of actual play.
Dončić will never be a straight-line driver, but back roads and shortcuts take him to far more interesting places. The more he meanders, the less recognizable the game around him becomes. Passing lanes warp. Defensive rotations grow jumbled. No one, now or ever before, has moved to quite the same cadence as Dončić. “He’s an authentic original,” Carlisle says. “He’s truly unlike any specific player that I’ve ever seen.” Flailing defenses, lost in translation, seem to agree.