Words by Franklyn Calle
“That’s my takeaway—He doesn’t pop athletically.”
“I mean, he’s better than Ricky Rubio but he doesn’t look special to me.”
“Doncic, at 6-7, will get exposed for all of the inadequacies that Dirk had. Dirk is not a great athlete. Dirk doesn’t have explosiveness. Dirk isn’t physical. That’s what is going to happen to Doncic…I’m not saying Luka is setting the NBA world on fire—I’m not sure he’s going to be a dominating NBA player.”
“The athleticism, that’s a problem. The lack of athleticism.”
“I believe Luka should go to a good team. I don’t believe he’s a lottery pick. No, I don’t. I think he falls right outside the lottery.”
“I don’t give a damn about how this kid in Europe looked.”
“We tend to over-sensationalize European basketball. There [are] restrictions that cater to him. You can’t have nine Americans on the floor in Europe. There’s going to be nine bred Americans on the floor with you 95 percent of the time in the NBA. That changes the dynamics of the game.”
These weren’t from randoms on Twitter purposely throwing out hot takes for some retweets and follows. These were hoops analysts on ESPN and FS1 talk shows (which, on second thought, sometimes spiel absurd hot takes for the same reasons as the Twitter randoms) giving their thoughts on Luka Doncic’s potential in the lead up to the 2018 NBA Draft. We’re not here to judge or air any of them out, so purposely not attaching any names to these. But you’ve probably seen some of these clips on your own social feeds or on YouTube already. Even Damian Lillard quote-tweeted an 80-second video compilation with some of these very same soundbites the morning after the Mavs star dropped a monster triple-double during last summer’s (still super strange saying that) playoffs. Dame’s caption was simply “Lol”—which perfectly sums it all up in hindsight.
Doncic had proven himself overseas—going pro at age 13 (he left Slovenia by himself and relocated to Spain to play for Real Madrid—his mom didn’t join him there until three years later), winning MVP of the Liga ACB, EuroLeague and EuroLeague Final Four at 19 years old. The accolades actually made him the youngest MVP in EuroLeague history.
But a lot of fans (and media, seemingly) in the States had increasingly grown skeptical of highly-touted international prospects after many had not lived up to expectations upon their arrival to the Association. For the sake of consistency, they shall remain nameless here, too. There’s that dude from Eastern Europe who was drafted really high in the 2003 NBA Draft by that team that had just played in the Eastern Conference Finals a month earlier. Or that other guy in the previous draft class who went really high too but was never able to make it work in the Mile High City. Or even three years prior to that when the Knicks drafted a player in the teens who ultimately never saw a single minute of action in the League. There are plenty of posts online attempting to rank which international players were the most disappointing.
Hey, it’s the NBA. It’s not supposed to be easy or for everybody. There’s a reason why the average NBA career lasts barely four years. It doesn’t make any of the guys who weren’t able to take off in the Association less of a hooper. Luck, timing, fit, politics—whatever the case is, it doesn’t work out more often than it does. Nevermind the complexities in scouting and the challenges of evaluating players competing in leagues of various talent levels.
Nonetheless, it happened. And will continue to. Can’t-miss prospects will miss when they finally get there. And many of those who were overlooked, under-recruited and slighted on social media (and on TV) will turn heads.
It didn’t take long for those very same TV analysts to change their tune about Luka. Like, literally just a few games into his career. And now only two seasons in, the 6-7 Slovenian guard has accumulated a ridiculous amount of shattered records. Forget the two regular seasons worth of games (which include records like surpassing Michael Jordan for the most consecutive 20-5-5 performances since the ABA/NBA merger), just the very first playoff series of his career alone is enough to justify everything you hear about him. The six-game series against the L.A. Clippers dissipated any lingering doubts.
Game 1: 42 points—most points in a playoff debut by any player in NBA history, first 21-year-old to drop 40+ in a playoff game since LeBron James, fourth 21-year-old to do it in general (after Magic Johnson, Tracy McGrady and James).
Game 2: 28 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists—most points (70) by any player through his first two career playoff games in NBA history.
Game 3: first player in Mavericks history to record a triple-double in the playoffs, third youngest in NBA history to record a triple-double in the playoffs after Magic and LeBron.
Game 4: a gazillion records. So much that Mavs PR Twitter had to create a Twitter thread just to be able to list them all. And even then, there were others they missed. Media members soon chimed in with the additional data.
His 43-point, 17-rebound and 13-assist stat line, which included a buzzer-beater to tie the series at 2-2, made him: the youngest ever to record a 40-point triple-double in the playoffs, the youngest to ever hit a playoff buzzer-beater, the only player aside from Wilt Chamberlain to finish with 43+ points, 17+ rebounds and 13+ assists in a game, the only player aside from Jordan to put up a 40-piece to go with a buzzer-beater while trailing, the third ever 40-15-10 performance in the playoffs after Oscar Robertson and Charles Barkley, second ever 21-year-old to record a 30-point triple-double in the playoffs, the third player ever after Magic and LeBron to have multiple playoff triple-doubles by the age or 21. The list went on and on, but you get the point. Although the Mavs went on to lose in six games, they still managed to come away as the real winners in the grand scheme of things—in front of the whole world, they confirmed they had the one.
In the aftermath of Game 4 and in the weeks that followed, players across the League reacted to Luka’s insane performances. Props were given by the biggest names around.
Even before Luka played a single game in the NBA, back-to-back reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo saw all of this coming from a mile away. In the summer of 2018, the Greek Freak, speaking with Marca, a local newspaper in Madrid, showed that he was better equipped than anyone else to evaluate Luka’s NBA potential as an international player himself.
“He is the most exciting player to appear in basketball in recent years. This past year in Europe, he has won every competition he has played. EuroBasket, EuroLeague, Liga Endesa. He has been MVP of the EuroLeague, of the Final Four,” said Antetokounmpo.
“He has shown that he is more than ready to play, that he has matured faster than the rest. He has played against professionals, as Charles Barkley said. The other rookies played against schoolboys.
“People in the United States sometimes forget that in the EuroLeague [they] play very well and very hard, more than in the NCAA. You have to be very good to stand out in the EuroLeague, and Luka is. Doncic is very talented. He will have a great first year and, if it is not in the second, he will explode in the third.”
Looks like that explosion may have happened in the second year after all. Unless, of course, that wasn’t the explosion Giannis was talking about. There’s a chance we’re about to witness a whole other level that Luka could tap into. It’s worth noting, as of mid-December, he is the betting favorite to win MVP, according to Caesars Sportsbook with a +400. Defending MVP Giannis is right behind him at +450.
Giannis isn’t the only MVP who’s had high praise for the former Real Madrid star. The King himself, while appearing on Uninterrupted’s Road Trippin’ in early December, made it known that at one point he had intentions of starting a subset of his brand with Luka as the centerpiece. “I wanted to begin “Team LeBron” and have Luka as my first signing with Nike,” said LeBron. “I don’t even know if Luka knows this, but he will know it now. I wanted Luka to be the first signing of “Team LeBron” when he was going through his situation…That’s how much I believed in him.”
In July, Paul Pierce went as far as to suggest that there’s already been a passing of the crown.
“You talk about a kid who made one of the biggest leaps in recent memory from a Rookie of the Year to MVP-caliber player,” said the Celtics legend during an appearance on ESPN’s The Jump. “He has won every European championship that you can think of, every European MVP that you can think of. So, I expect special things from this kid. Clearly, he’s special. He’s a talent. To me, he is the most talented player in the NBA today. The lights are never too bright for him.”
The amount of individual records he’s been able to set and break is so great that his Wikipedia page has an “NBA achievements” section specifically dedicated to it, where people have been able to create a list with 43 different bullet points detailing where his performances have landed him in the history books. Forty-three. Two years in. This is being written five days before the start of the regular season. There’s a chance that by the time you have this magazine in your hands, he already added a new record to that list.
If you’re reading this, it is indeed too late.
I just feel confident. I know I have the confidence of my teammates and my team, so I just feel confident [in] myself and I love taking those shots. I get motivated. I have to make the last shot.LUKA DONCIC
“I just feel confident. I know I have the confidence of my teammates and my team, so I just feel confident [in] myself and I love taking those shots. I get motivated. I have to make the last shot,” Luka told Rachel Nichols in a sit-down interview in 2019. When he sat down with her again in 2020, he added: “Pressure was in my life when I was 13, when I had to move from Slovenia alone to Madrid. I live with pressure every day, so I just don’t feel it anymore.”
As seen on SLAM 230