They call it Luka magic. Put the ball in this 6ft 8in Slovenian’s hands and good things tend to happen on the court.
In fact, good is something of an understatement. Luka Doncic’s play leans, shimmies and spins into the sublime so often that it would be unfair to describe it as anything else. Or indeed, as something any less enticing or mesmeric than magic.
If you’ve caught any of Doncic’s three seasons in the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks, or even the four before that with Real Madrid in the EuroLeague and Liga ACB, you’ll know exactly what ‘Luka Magic’ entails.
According to the lore that tends to follow early greatness like this, clinging to its ankles to help explain a talent we would otherwise struggle to understand, Doncic first touched a basketball at seven months old and was playing with the miniature hoop in his room by the time he was one.
At the age of seven he was on the court at his primary school in Ljubljana, at eight with the local club Union Olimpija, where his father – Saša – put up his own shots from the wing for the senior team. It goes on like this. His prodigious abilities saw him last only 16 minutes of a training session with players his own age.
Soon he was practising with team-mates up to six years older but league rules meant he could only compete against those with a three or four-year advantage in actual competition. At 13 he composed a 54-point, 11-rebound and 10-assist triple-double in the final of the Lido di Roma tournament to seal the trophy and earn MVP honours for himself. That particularly symphony was a sign of many more to come.
Real Madrid, who had been following the player for some time, had seen enough. So Luka signed on the dotted line and made the 1,200 mile trip to the Spanish capital in the hope of becoming a basketball player. It didn’t take long.
Three years later, at the age of 16, he made his professional debut. The season after he became a regular off the bench. The one after that he was named EuroLeague Rising Star. A year later EuroLeague champion and MVP. You can see where this is going.
It’s unfathomable Doncic is still only 22. He has been named an All-Star and All-NBA First Teamer twice in three seasons. In the other one he picked up Rookie of the Year. Heading into the 2021-22 season, a survey of NBA General Managers revealed that a third of them think he will pick up MVP honours this season, while 43 per cent would sign him over every other player in the league if they were starting a franchise from scratch.
Given his trajectory so far, a near-vertical cliff face of progression, would you bet against him being named the single best player in the league? As it stands, can you see anything other than Doncic ending his career with enough titles to fill Lake Bled?
This is where we are with Luka now, waiting to see just how far the enchanted fabric will stretch.
Attempting to drip every ounce of genius from Doncic this season will be new Mavericks coach Jason Kidd, appointed in June as part of a substantial overhaul of the coaching staff and front office. While his coaching career to date can be described as a mixed bag at best, Kidd’s profile as a player makes the new combination tantalising, particularly in terms of how it could expand Luka’s already polished game.
Kidd, a runaway freight train of a point guard capable of hauling down rebounds and trampolining off on a one-man fast break, or threading the needle to a runner either side, might well be the perfect man to fill in the gaps for Doncic.
Oversized himself at the one position, although not quite to Luka’s extent, Kidd was an excellent defender and playmaker (he currently sits second all-time in assists with over 12,000) but lacked shooting touch until much later in his career, which hampered his scoring.
In contrast, Doncic is already there, averaging over 28 points per game across the past two seasons – a number which jumps to 33.5 per game in the playoffs. Beyond that, Luka vacuums in boards at a rate Kidd only matched once in his career (over 8 per game) and hit his ludicrous diet of step-back threes at 35 per cent last season, a number that seems low unless you take into account the circus difficulty of the shots he is making.
Again, that jumped to over 40 per cent in the playoffs, a mark Kidd didn’t reach from three-point range until he was 33.
Kidd, however, was selfless to a fault on the court, leading the league in assists five times throughout his career, and driving the unfancied New Jersey Nets to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances as their best and only All-Star calibre player.
Against the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs last season, Doncic took the series to seven games almost singlehandedly.
In Games 4 and 6 his trademark step-back threes weren’t falling and that may well have been in the difference in what was a razor-thin contest, but beyond that it was hard to ask for more from a player who took two of the best wing defenders in the league to school time and time again.
At times, it seemed as though both Paul George or Kawhi Leonard were avoiding the one-on-one match-up against Doncic, but in reality it was the point guard’s intelligent use of screens and pick and rolls to generate favourable mismatches.
Even if George or Leonard did sag into their defensive stance and slap the floor ahead of them, Luka just torched them as though they were Nicolas Batum anyway, whether driving to the basket for the and-one, flicking a no-look dime to an open shooter or dancing around them and launching from the perimeter himself.
There is, of course, no such thing as a one-man team, but Doncic’s Mavericks are the closest thing we have in the NBA.
He led the league in time of possession last season (8.9 seconds per touch) and in that series against the Clippers was responsible for a staggering 73 per cent of Dallas’ points against the Clippers in Game 5 (42 points and 14 assists) and 77 per cent in Game 7 (46 points and another 14 times).
This is telling for a couple of reasons. First, it shows that despite several cracks at shutting him down with a host of long, switch-y defenders and a variety of schemes, Ty Lue and the Clippers (eighth in defensive rating last season) simply could not stop Doncic from scoring or creating buckets for his team-mates every time he juddered down the floor.
The second is that those performances still weren’t enough to win a playoff series.
It took Kidd until his sixth post-season appearance to crack the first round and once he did he drove the Nets to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003. Patience may be required. But then again, it is clear as day that now, right now, Doncic is every bit good enough to crash through the notoriously competitive Western Conference, even as the lone star on his team.
One of two things will need to happen. Kidd will mix things up in Dallas after 13 seasons of Rick Carlisle, eke a bit more from the supporting cast – whether Tim Hardaway Jr, Kristaps Porzingis, Jalen Brunson or a more unexpected source – and the Mavericks will start making the kind of playoff pushes that seem inevitable with a player like Luka Doncic on the roster.
The other thing, and this is the truly frightening one, is that Doncic gets a bit better, and a bit better, and a bit better, as he has done on every step of this spellbound journey to date, until he has his hands on the MVP award, the Larry O’Brien Trophy and the Bill Russell Finals MVP.
Given everything you’ve read and everything you’ve seen so far, I ask once again: are you going to bet against him? He’s magic, after all.