There’s a buzz inside Dallas’s American Airlines Center that hasn’t been there in years. The media contingent in the locker room after Saturday’s Mavs home opener, a 140-136 victory over the Timberwolves, was three times as large as it was at any point last season. Three security guards kept autograph seekers away from Luka Doncic, the no. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft, before the game. Everyone wanted a piece of Doncic, a seasoned professional at 19 who has already mastered the art of saying nothing in four languages: English, Spanish, Serbian, and Slovenian.
“I played basketball for a long time,” Doncic said (in English) to the media crowded around his locker after the Minnesota game. “Being professional. I like to say I was ready for the moment.”
Doncic may be the best thing that has happened to the franchise since it dismantled its championship team after the 2010-11 season. The team hasn’t won a playoff series since, and has averaged only 28.5 wins over the past two seasons. The Mavs have the longest active sellout streak in professional sports, but it’s been kept alive with smoke and mirrors over the past few seasons, the team giving away unused tickets to any group that will take them. The AAC filled up only when teams like the Warriors came to town. Dallas is a Cowboys town. The other pro franchises need to win to grab the interest of the fans. Even the presence of an iconic figure like Dirk Nowitzki does only so much.
The Mavs hope that Doncic can become that type of player. They haven’t been shy about promoting their star rookie, putting him on billboards all over town with the headline “The Future Is Here.” He has rewarded their confidence so far, averaging 18.3 points on 43.5 percent shooting, 5.7 rebounds, and 4.3 assists in his first three NBA games.
Doncic has been talked about in NBA circles for years, ever since he became a key player for Real Madrid, one of the best teams in Europe, at 16. He’s coming off an 18-month stretch in which he teamed up with Goran Dragic to lead Slovenia to a EuroBasket championship, led Real Madrid to a EuroLeague championship, and became the youngest MVP of the EuroLeague Final Four. Doncic has a special combination of size (6-foot-7 and 218 pounds) and skill. He is a legitimate point forward who can score from all over the floor.
“Doncic is an unbelievable talent. Just his ability with that size and the skill set that he has. It makes him such a difficult cover,” said Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg before a 115-109 loss to the Mavs on Monday. “His handle. His ability to shoot the ball and pass it. It’s most impressive in tight spaces: the way he can deliver the ball on time on target to shooters. He does so many things that make him a tough player. And he’s been doing it for a long time.”
There have been some ups and downs in his first week in the NBA. The Mavs didn’t play Doncic in summer league and encouraged him to take some time off. They were concerned about his workload: He’d played in more than 160 games over the past two years for his club and national teams. He seems to have taken that advice to heart. He didn’t show up to training camp in great shape. There were moments against the Wolves and Bulls when Doncic could be seen doubled over with his hands on his knees, catching his breath. Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle, one of the first coaches to employ the modern strategy of staggering the minutes of his best players, has kept Doncic on the court for unusually long stretches of time, perhaps to play him into shape.
Doncic is not a player with athleticism to spare at this level. I haven’t talked to any NBA scout or executive who’s questioned his skill. The skeptics point to his relatively pedestrian physical tools. He doesn’t have a great first step, and he can struggle to create separation off the dribble against bigger and more athletic defenders. Doncic relies on a lot of pump fakes and hesitation moves. When the defender doesn’t bite, he can start dribbling in circles, probing for an opening that isn’t there.
Against the best players in the world, Doncic can’t let the game come to him like he would in Europe. He has to look for his own shot and use the threat of his shooting ability to open up the rest of his toolbox. The closer that defenders will play him on the perimeter, the more room he will have to get into the lane. He needs only half a step. He’s a clever player who has already figured out how to initiate contact and get to the free throw line. His free throw rate (.283) is almost double that of Dennis Smith Jr. (.159), even though he isn’t nearly as athletic as his fellow highly touted youngster.
“After a disappointing start, [Doncic] got himself into the game with aggression,” said Carlisle after the Minnesota game. “The game is too long. You have to stay in it. There are too many events. Too many plays. You can never drop your head.”
Doncic, for all his experience, still has moments when he plays like a teenager. He was pressing early in his home debut, and he admitted to being rattled after going 0-for-3 with two turnovers in the first quarter against the Wolves. It wasn’t until he knocked down his first shot halfway through the second quarter that he got comfortable, pouring in another 10 points over the following three minutes.
“I got angry with myself. It’s not how I play. That’s why I turned it on [in the second quarter],” said Doncic after the game. “I was impressed with the fans. They put so much effort into the game. I wanted to play for them.”
The relatively soft-spoken 19-year-old is carrying an enormous burden on his shoulders. Mavs owner Mark Cuban always said he would tear down the team after Dirk retired, but the billionaire has spent the past few seasons doing everything he could to avoid a long rebuild. Doncic is his biggest gamble yet. He gave up a king’s ransom to acquire him, trading a top-five-protected first-round pick to move up two spots in the draft. Dallas can’t afford to be wrong. The Mavs have only two lottery picks (Doncic and Smith) to show for their mediocre play in the seven seasons since their championship, and they may not get another chance to draft in the top 10 in the near future. Cuban is hoping that Doncic can accelerate the team’s growth to the point that it can contend for the playoffs and become a player in free agency next summer.
Carlisle is doing his part to make the rookie as comfortable as possible, walking a thin line between building Doncic up and not putting any more pressure on him. Never the sunniest personality to begin with, Carlisle has already lost patience with the media, shooting down almost every question about Doncic.
“Let’s not make everything about Luka. This is a team. And Luka would be the first to tell you that,” said Carlisle. “We aren’t trying to get guys going. We are trying to get our team going—get the crowd going—with hard play, not individual performance.”
Dallas is already building around Doncic. The team has set up an almost ideal environment for him, at least offensively. Carlisle, one of the more influential coaches when it comes to personnel decisions, loves to play two point guards together in a multiple-ball-handler offense. Doncic allows Carlisle to maintain that offensive structure without the size trade-offs that typically come from those lineups. Carlisle wants to push the pace, spread the floor, and run pick-and-rolls, the same style Doncic flourished in at Real Madrid.
“I’m sure Dick Harter [an assistant with Carlisle on the Pacers in the late ’90s] is turning over in his grave right now,” said Carlisle. “This is a new age of basketball. Everything is spread out. Four attackers. Five shooters. It’s a systematic thing: You have to get the good 3s. That’s where the money is.”
Everything starts with a pick-and-roll between either Doncic or Smith and DeAndre Jordan, whom the Mavs signed to a one-year, $23 million contract in the offseason. Jordan, despite being in his 11th season in the NBA, is still an elite rim runner who sucks in the defense when he dives to the rim. He’s a massive target (6-foot-11 and 265 pounds) with soft hands and good touch in the lane, and he’s averaging 17 points on 70 percent shooting, 12.7 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks in Dallas’s first three games. Jordan is even making free throws this season: He’s 9-of-10 from the charity stripe in the first three games and coming off the best free-throw-shooting season of his career (58 percent on 4.1 attempts per game), a huge improvement over his 44.7 percent career mark, and an encouraging sign for a 30-year-old who can no longer rely purely on athleticism. Plays like this should become more common as he develops more chemistry with Doncic:
“[Jordan] makes things way easier. He’s a shot blocker. He gets rebounds. He gets mad when I get rebounds, but we don’t have to talk about that,” said Doncic with a laugh.
Just as important as the two players in the pick-and-roll is having enough 3-point shooting around them to spread out the defense. Dallas is still waiting for Harrison Barnes, its best two-way player, to return from a strained hamstring he suffered during training camp, so they have leaned heavily on Wesley Matthews (34.5 percent from 3 on 9.7 attempts per game) and Dorian Finney-Smith (40.0 percent on 5.0 attempts per game) in their first three games.
Smith, who had one of the highest usage rates in the NBA (27.8) as a rookie, is the one starter who doesn’t fit perfectly with Doncic. The two get along well off the court, even living in the same upscale apartment complex near the arena, but they are still figuring out how to play together. Smith, a ball-dominant guard with a streaky outside shot, has struggled in a more complementary role, averaging 13.0 points a game on 34.1 percent shooting. The Mavs move the ball well enough to give both Smith and Doncic plenty of opportunities over the course of a game, but Carlisle might end up staggering their minutes so both can have time as the primary playmaker on the floor.
While playing next to Doncic should make Smith a better player over the long haul, it will take years for them to become fully comfortable with each other. There’s a steep learning curve for two under-21 point guards even in the best of circumstances. The good news is they are playing for a creative coach who has only scratched the surface of the ways he can use them together.
“We have really focused on increasing the tempo. [Carlisle] gave me the freedom to push [the ball] every time, make or miss. We want to take more 3s, less midrange [shots], and increase the tempo,” said Smith. “If I push it in transition, I can find Luka. He’s a great shooter. He’s a great playmaker as well, especially off the catch.”
The best-case scenario is what happened in the fourth quarter of their win over Minnesota. The offense mostly ran through Doncic, but Smith still got the last shot of the game, since he has an easier time creating an open shot off the dribble:
Both guys should benefit from the return of Dirk, although there is still no timetable for when the 40-year-old will come back from offseason ankle surgery. The plan is for Nowitzki to come off the bench for the first time in his 20-year career in Dallas. One of the most interesting decisions Carlisle has is how he will divide playing time with Dirk among all of his ball handlers. Even at this stage of his career, Nowitzki is still one of the most respected shooters in the league, attracting multiple defenders every time he’s in the pick-and-roll. Running around a screen from Dirk is almost a guarantee of an open shot or a driving lane to the rim.
It’s not just Smith and Doncic. Carlisle hoards point guards as though they were made of gold. J.J. Barea, in his second stint with the franchise, and Devin Harris, in his third, have quarterbacked one of the best second units in the NBA over the past few seasons. Harris is currently out with a strained hamstring, which has allowed rookie Jalen Brunson to earn playing time. The 22-year-old is already a Carlisle favorite; he thinks Brunson, the no. 33 overall pick, should have been taken in the top 15. Brunson won two national titles in three seasons at Villanova, and his ability to knock down 3s and make quick decisions with the ball should make him a great fit next to Doncic.
The concern, as has often been the case in Dallas in the Dirk era, is what happens on the other end of the floor. Their defense this season has been as bad as their offense has been good. Doncic, especially given his conditioning, hasn’t been much help. At 6-foot-7 with a sturdy frame, Doncic at least has the size to hold his own against multiple positions, but that versatility is just a theory for now. Doncic has been versatile defensively only in the sense that Carlisle has hidden him on many different types of players.
Doncic and Trae Young, who will forever be linked after the two were traded for each other on draft night, are a new type of elite prospect. Neither of them was the best athlete in either Europe or the NCAA, respectively. Both are part of the first generation of players who grew up modeling their games after Steph Curry. They also wound up going to NBA teams willing to give them an unlimited green light from 3. Young is currently no. 8 in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game (9.3), while Doncic is in a tie for no. 17 (7.3). They are currently no. 1 and no. 2 all time among rookies in that category, just ahead of Donovan Mitchell, who set a new record last season by attempting 7.0 per game.
Doncic and Young, who may end up as two of the front-runners for the Rookie of the Year Award, came into the league at the perfect time. NBA teams have been steadily increasing the number of 3s they attempt over the past generation. That number has spiked this season, leading to jaw-dropping numbers across the league. The Mavs’ current rate (43.4 3-point attempts per game) is ahead of the record (42.3) set by the Rockets last season. The Hawks are no. 6 at 37.7. Should teams continue shooting 3s at their current rate, 14 of the top 20 most 3-point-happy teams in NBA history will come from this season.
“I could see every team in the league eventually getting into the range of 45-50 percent of their shots coming from 3, where only Houston was last season,” one executive texted me. “That’s the most optimal strategy for most teams.”
The offensive explosion in the first week of the NBA season is remarkably similar to what’s happening in the NFL. Houston led the NBA with an offensive rating of 114.0 last season. That same number would be good enough for only no. 7 this season. There are more than twice as many teams (14) with an offensive rating higher than 110 as there were last season (six). Most people I’ve talked to around the league don’t think those numbers will tail off, either.
“There are at least four guys who can shoot and drive the ball on almost every team,” said Carlisle. “Everyone is skilled and everyone has picked up the pace. It’s very difficult to defend and I don’t see it slowing down.”
The NBA is moving into a radically new offensive environment that could recalibrate what good offense looks like. Thirty years ago, the average NBA team attempted 6.6 3-point attempts per game. This season, it’s up to 31.6 3s per game. That shift wasn’t just as simple as recognizing that 3s are worth more than 2s. A new generation of players had to grow up thinking of the 3-point line as normal, instead of as a gimmick. The NBA instituted the 3-point line in 1980-81. Dell Curry, who was born in 1964, was part of the first generation of great shooters. Steph, born in 1988, is part of the second. Young (1998) and Luka (1999) could be leading the third. It’s unclear where they will take the game from here.
“The upper limit [on 3s per game] is heavily dependent on the skill of the players. If every guard comes into the league playing like Trae, then it will go higher,” said the same executive.
Veteran coaches like Carlisle still have a hard time getting their heads around the numbers. His players don’t even think twice. It’s how they have played their whole lives.
“We like to play fast so we can play more possessions. We took a lot of 3-point shots. We have a lot of good 3-point shooters,” said Doncic with a shrug. “We have a lot of guys who can make shots. We have confidence in our team. I have confidence in all my teammates. And all my teammates have confidence with me.”
The increased importance of the 3-point shot has created a path to stardom for different types of players. Doncic has the size, skill, and toughness to have been successful in any era, but he wouldn’t be nearly as good were he playing in a more confined half-court environment without the freedom to launch shots from anywhere on the floor. A guy who struggles to create space off the dribble needs to play in as much space as possible. No NBA coach at the turn of millennium would have allowed Doncic to take shots like this. Carlisle, the architect of some of the stingiest defenses in the league in Detroit and Indiana in the early 2000s, might have had an aneurysm.
It’s unclear how effective Doncic can be with a steady diet of those shots. He is shooting only 31.8 percent from 3 so far this season, and he shot 31.0 percent on 4.8 attempts per game last season in Europe. There’s only one thing we can know for sure at this point: The Mavs will give him every chance to find out.
Life won’t be always as easy for Doncic as it was in his first week of the NBA, when he faced three of the worst defenses in the league: the Suns, Wolves, and Bulls. Those are three young teams with significant structural issues that would prevent them from playing effective defense in any era, much less this one. It will be the same story in his heavily anticipated showdown with Young and the Hawks on Wednesday. We will have a better idea of how he matches up against elite defenses after games against the Raptors and Jazz over the weekend.
The scouting report on Doncic is just getting out. There will be a constantly evolving chess match between Carlisle and opposing coaches as he tries to figure out how to put his star rookie in the best possible situations to succeed. Dallas has used him mainly as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs, but he’s versatile enough to play almost any role in an offense. He can come around screens off the ball, score in the post, and pop out to the 3-point line after being the screener in the pick-and-roll. Doncic could set screens for Smith, and Smith could set screens for him.
The idea should be to hunt mismatches and prevent Doncic from having to create too much off the dribble against elite perimeter defenders. If the Mavs can force smaller players to switch onto him, he can put them on his back and find shooters all over the floor. There aren’t many 6-foot-7 guys who can make passes like this:
Doncic hasn’t put together a great passing game yet. After averaging 4.5 assists and 2.2 turnovers in Spain last season, he has a far more pedestrian ratio (4.3 assists and 4.3 turnovers) in the NBA. Part of the issue has been the streaky 3-point shooting around him. Dallas is no. 4 in the league in 3-point attempts (43.4) but only no. 24 in 3-point percentage (32.3). The Mavs are counting on Barnes and Dirk creating more space for Doncic when they return, while their ability to get their own shot should also create more open 3s for him.
Doncic will need to improve his body to be successful hunting mismatches. It won’t be an overnight process. For as much basketball as he has played in his life, he’s still only 19. He’s still growing into his body, and he has never been in an NBA strength-and-conditioning program before. Just because he’s a slightly doughy teenager doesn’t mean he can’t transform his physique by the time he’s in his mid-20s.
“The speed of the game [in the NBA] is on a different level. The physicality is on a different level. Just the size of everyone,” said Ryan Broekhoff, a 28-year-old rookie for the Mavs who spent the past five seasons in Europe. “The way they treat players over here is second to none. [Strength and conditioning] is more of a daily grind. It’s bits and pieces every day that makes guys stronger.”
There is no shortage of NBA-caliber big men and guards in Europe. There aren’t many 6-foot-7 wings with the length and athleticism to stay in front of a guy like Doncic. Matching up with Thanasis Antetokounmpo is one thing. Matching up with Giannis, a poster child for what an NBA weight room can do to a player, is another.
“I talked with Luka and what I said to him was that it’s always better when you come [to the NBA] as young as you can. You see that you really need to work on your body here,” Kings swingman Bogdan Bogdanovic told me last season. “When you play all the summers for national teams, and long seasons with the European clubs, you don’t have time to work on your body.”
Doncic is a walking paradox, with an old man’s game in a young man’s body.
He has as much high-level professional experience as any 19-year-old in the history of the sport. He has put a lot of miles on his body already, but his game should also age extraordinarily well. He’s an NBA-ready rookie with a high floor, and no one knows how high his ceiling is. It won’t be easy for him to reach it. Doncic will have to maximize every bit of physical potential that he has. The good news for the Mavs is that he has figured it out at every step of the way so far.
“I don’t give Luka any advice,” Matthews told me in the locker room after the game on Saturday. “He just plays basketball. He’s been a professional since he was 11 years old.”