Luka Doncic hasn’t even needed much advice from Mavs’ Dirk Nowitzki amid hi
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Gradelo Staff
2 days ago
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MINNEAPOLIS — One of the most jaw-dropping moments of Luka Doncic’s jaw-dropping rookie season came Friday night.

The final few minutes of the fourth quarter had gone back and forth: A hook shot by Karl-Anthony Towns to give the Minnesota Timberwolves the lead, then a fadeaway jumper by Doncic over the outstretched hands of Towns to put the Dallas Mavericks ahead. A jumper by Jeff Teague for the Wolves, then a monster two-handed dunk in traffic by Doncic to lift the Mavs. With 35.7 seconds left, Taj Gibson tipped in a Teague miss to give the Wolves a 115-114 lead.

Now was Doncic time … except that, after a timeout, Doncic made a bad pass, and the Wolves snagged it and hustled out in transition. But the Wolves quickly coughed up the ball, and Doncic brought it past half-court. A few feet behind the 3-point line, Doncic pulled up and fired a 3. No hesitation – despite his turnover moments before, and despite him having missed seven of his eight 3-point attempts so far.

That entire fourth quarter, as Doncic took over — scoring 11 of his 29 points and coming just a couple rebounds short of his first career triple-double — watching the 19-year-old’s poise in such a big moment was simply astounding. Rookies just don’t play with this sort of swagger. I thought back to something Dirk Nowitzki had told me after the Mavericks’ shootaround a few hours before: “The presence he has, the willingness to have the ball in his hands in the fourth quarter — that usually comes with experience. But he’s just got that confidence about himself. The way he carries himself. He’s got that swagger about him that he’s one of the best. It’s almost like he came in here not thinking ‘I will make it,’ but he came in here thinking, ‘I’m going to make it big.’ He’s shown it from Day One.”

The ball left Doncic’s hands, and the arena took a deep breath. With 22.9 seconds left, the ball hit nothing but net. The Mavericks went on to get a huge win, only their fourth road victory of the year, to remain a couple games out of playoff position in the bunched-up Western Conference. NBA seasons are not linear things, nor is the development of a young player; on Sunday night, when the Mavericks turned to Doncic late in a close game against the Warriors, he came up short, missing all three of his field-goal attempts in the final three minutes, plus one of his free throws, and the Warriors won on late-game heroics from Steph Curry. But the fact that a team is turning to a 19-year-old rookie in the waning minutes of a big-time game against the defending champs ought to tell you something about Doncic’s incredible rookie year.

The lion’s share of the team’s turnaround – the Mavericks had the third-worst record in the NBA last season, and halfway through the season they’re already just four wins short of last year’s total – is due to Doncic. He’s the clear favorite for rookie of the year. He’s second to LeBron James in total All-Star fan votes in the Western Conference, and while saying he’s the second-best player in the West this season is something no sane person would say, Doncic deserves to be the first rookie to make an NBA All-Star Game since Blake Griffin in 2011. As Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said, “I think he’s already an All-Star.”

Consider the numbers: Doncic is averaging 20.2 points after his first 42 games, with the Mavs off until Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs (8:30 p.m. ET — watch via fuboTV’s NBA League Pass extension). That’s 30th in the NBA, and tops among rookies. He’s also averaging 6.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists a game and shooting 37.3 percent from 3. His step-back 3 is the most deadly in the NBA from anyone not named James Harden. Harden, in fact, is the only player who has made more step-back 3s this season than Doncic, who has made 26 step-back 3s at a 34.2 percent rate.

Doncic’s size, speed and strength are all deceptive; as Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle told me, those were all things that were difficult to calibrate when he was in Europe how those would transfer to the NBA game. Needless to say, they have, and then some.

If he keeps up his statistical pace for the whole season – and there’s no reason to think he won’t, since he played a full Euroleague season a year ago instead of the abbreviated collegiate season most American players are coming off of — what we’re experiencing with Doncic is a historic rookie season. The only rookies to average 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists a game in a complete season: Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James and, in a notorious anomaly, Tyreke Evans.

Rookie, team

Year

PPG

RPG

APG

Oscar Robertson, Royals

1960-61

30.5

10.1

9.7

Michael Jordan, Bulls

1984-85

28.2

6.5

5.9

LeBron James, Cavaliers

2003-04

20.9

5.5

5.9

Tyreke Evans, Kings

2009-10

20.1

5.3

5.8

Luka Doncic, Mavericks

2018-19

20.2

6.7

5.0

I get that there’s context here, and that NBA teams play with a much faster pace now compared to when LeBron was a rookie. Teams average nearly 10 more possessions per game more now compared to 2003-04. But the league’s pace was actually higher throughout the 1980s than it is today, so it’s not like Doncic’s numbers are inflated to a degree that historical comparisons become unfair.

And those historical comparisons for Doncic’s rookie season are simply ridiculous.

This is not to say Doncic will become the next LeBron James (although multiple NBA executives have told me they see Doncic as a future MVP candidate). You never know how a player will develop. You never know when injuries can hamper a career, either; Grant Hill might have become an all-timer if it weren’t for injuries. But right now, Doncic looks like one of the top young prospects in the NBA, the type of player who could soon become one of the faces of the NBA.

If tomorrow there were a draft of all NBA players under the age of 25, how many players would go ahead of Doncic? Giannis Antetokounmpo. But who else would you take over Doncic? Joel Embiid? Karl-Anthony Towns? Nikola Jokic? Maybe. But I don’t think I would. I asked Nowitzki, one of the NBA’s outgoing legends, what he’s thought of Doncic’s rookie season. The answer — the greatest European NBA player of all time, talking about a youngster who could vie to supplant him — was revealing.

“For a 19-year-old he’s the complete package already,” Nowitzki said. “He’s a great passer, got good handles for his size. He sees the floor. He’s a way better shooter than we all thought, especially on the step-back shot. He’s got the floaters.”

What stands out most, though, is his killer mentality. That’s just not normal in rookies. As impressive as the numbers are, they don’t fully measure the potential greatness in this young man.

“My (rookie season) was completely different,” Nowitzki said. “I wasn’t confident at all back then. I was just trying to fit in. He carries himself differently. He carries himself like he came in here knowing he was going to be the man. I haven’t given him much advice about how to play in this league. He just knows. He knows what to do out there. He doesn’t carry himself as a rookie. He carries himself as a 10-year vet.”

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