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The Mavericks’ Wonder Years Are Here

Luka Doncic, Real Madrid’s 19-year-old Wonder Boy, combines the very best of EuroLeague legends past. In Dallas, he landed in a near-perfect situation to translate his game to the NBA.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There aren’t many historical precedents for Luka Doncic, the Slovenian prodigy the Hawks took with the no. 3 overall pick before sending him to the Mavs in a draft-night trade. Most 19-year-olds struggle to get playing time in the EuroLeague, the second-best league in the world. But Doncic is the reigning MVP of the EuroLeague Final Four, an award that typically goes to established veterans, either Americans who washed out of the NBA or international players who never made it over. There have been only five other players in the past 30 years to win it under the age of 25. Before Doncic, the youngest to ever win was 21. He’s a hybrid of the two from that list you’d recognize: Toni Kukoc and Manu Ginobili.

If NBA teams drafted purely on résumé and statistical production, Doncic would have been the overwhelming favorite to be the no. 1 overall pick. He has gone from championship to championship over the past 12 months, teaming up with Goran Dragic to win a EuroBasket title for Slovenia and winning the EuroLeague and Spanish ACB titles at Real Madrid. Much like Kukoc and Ginobili, who were also the best players on EuroLeague championship teams before coming to the NBA, there is nothing left for Doncic to prove in the world of international basketball. The only question left is whether his stardom on that stage will translate to the highest level of the game.

Concerns about his athleticism are why he fell in the draft. Doncic doesn’t have the elite athleticism of Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III, the two big men taken ahead of him. He doesn’t have a blazing first step or the ability to levitate in the air. And he’s never going to be as impressive in an individual workout as a 7-footer with those physical tools. Doncic, for as much success as he has had overseas, struggled at times to create separation off the dribble against more athletic swingmen. He will face more switching defenses in the NBA, and they will challenge him to beat elite defenders one-on-one instead of sending help and allowing him to pick them apart with his passing.

There is no comparing the levels of speed and athleticism in the NBA and Europe. While there are plenty of elite athletes, such as former lottery pick Anthony Randolph, one of Doncic’s pick-and-roll partners at Madrid, those players didn’t stick in the NBA because they couldn’t maximize their physical tools. It doesn’t matter how big or fast a guy is if he’s always one step behind the action. The passing windows and driving lanes for Doncic will be smaller, and he will never be the best athlete on the floor like he was at times overseas.

Nevertheless, barring injury, there’s little chance he will be a bust. Doncic has elite ballhandling and passing skills and the ability to shoot 3s off the dribble. Though 6-foot-8 and 228 pounds, he’s not a point forward; he’s a legitimate point guard with the size of a small-ball power forward, one of the rarest combinations of skills in the game. Even a worst-case version of Doncic is a 10-year NBA player who improves his team’s floor spacing and playmaking from the forward positions and competes on the glass. He’s already strong enough to play in the NBA, and he will only get stronger as he enters an NBA strength-and-conditioning program.

Houston Rockets v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

The best case for Doncic is combining the all-around game of Ginobili with the size of Kukoc into a game-changing player. The Spurs have always carefully rationed Ginobili’s minutes, fearful that his all-out style of play for 35-plus minutes a night would lead to injury and shorten his career. Doncic is a teenager who is already built like a tank, and his size and strength should allow him to drive the ball into the teeth of an NBA defense and survive among the trees. He’s a pick-and-roll machine who can also take on a role similar to the one Kukoc had with the Bulls, when he used his size to put smaller players on his back and distributed out of the high post.

Doncic will have one clear advantage over his predecessors: The NBA game, thanks largely to the generations of international players who paved the way for him, is radically different from when Ginobili and Kukoc joined from overseas. NBA teams are now emphasizing 3-point shooting at all five positions, and the best players launch shots 30-plus feet from the basket. Kukoc averaged 3.5 3-point attempts per 36 minutes in the NBA. Ginobili has averaged 5.4. Doncic averaged 6.9 in 61 games in the EuroLeague and the ACB this season. The more freedom a player like Doncic is given to shoot 3s off the dribble, the better his chances to dominate without elite athleticism.

Toni Kukoc
Toni Kukoc

Creating offense so far from the basket flattens differences in speed and quickness between the best players. Steph Curry and James Harden aren’t equal to Russell Westbrook athletically, but they are harder to defend because they have to be picked up almost as soon as they cross half court. When Kukoc came to the NBA in 1993, three years after being drafted in the second round, teams’ embrace of the 3-point shot was still in its infancy and most of the game was played in the narrow confines of the paint. Illegal defense rules prevented teams from crowding the lane with extra defenders, so offenses were designed to create one-on-one opportunities for big men who could carve out room for themselves as close to the basket as possible.

Doncic, unlike Kukoc, will not be playing in the triangle. Being traded to Dallas is the best thing that could have happened to him. He’s a perfect fit for the multiple-ball-handler offense used by Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle, one of the first coaches to embrace the importance of spreading the floor and having as many playmakers on the court as possible. Carlisle likes to play two point guards together, and he’s been known to play three at a time, even at the cost of having a 6-foot-3 guard like Devin Harris at the 3. Doncic is the best of both worlds because he can handle that type of offensive responsibility from the forward positions without compromising the defense in the same way.

The concerns about how Doncic will fit with Dennis Smith Jr., the über-athletic point guard the Mavs took with the no. 9 overall pick in last year’s draft, are overblown. Much like Harden and Chris Paul in Houston, one of Doncic and Smith will be on the floor for the entire game in Dallas, giving each time to dominate the ball while the other rests. Doncic can also thrive in an off-ball role, either setting screens for Smith at the top of the key or running around screens and knocking down catch-and-shoot 3s. Switching a screen between Smith and Doncic will be dangerous, and Doncic should be incredible in the types of four-on-three situations the screener in the two-man game often receives.

Doncic will transform the Mavs, who got only 4.7 assists per game from the combination of Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes last season. Matthews has never been the same player since tearing his Achilles in his final season with the Blazers, while Barnes is a mechanical player more comfortable hunting for his own shot than reading the floor and making plays on the move. Both players will be more effective after being moved down the pecking order on offense, and they should thrive in the secondary roles they had before coming to Dallas, where a lack of elite talent pushed them out of their comfort zones.

The big question for the Mavs is what will happen at center. The Nerlens Noel experiment was a disaster. Dwight Powell has quietly turned himself into one of the best roll men in the NBA, but he’s a situational big man who will never anchor a defense or hold up against starting-caliber 5s. Dallas needs its own version of Clint Capela to turn Doncic and Smith into younger versions of Paul and Harden. The good news for the Mavs is they have the cap space to be aggressive in free agency, and there will be no shortage of big men to choose from.

Dallas has been linked to DeMarcus Cousins, but his ball-dominant offensive style and inconsistent defense would be a poor fit with Doncic and Smith, who need an elite roll man who can cover for them on the other side of the ball. Their best bet is Capela himself, and the Mavs may force the Rockets’ hand by offering him a max contract in restricted free agency. Another option would be Derrick Favors, an unrestricted free agent who has been playing out of position next to Rudy Gobert in Utah. The Mavs could also take a look at Dwight Howard, who could be an ideal fit if he’s convinced to stop demanding post-up touches.

Dallas Mavericks v Boston Celtics
Dirk Nowitzki
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Drafting Doncic means Dirk Nowitzki will likely come off the bench for the first time since his rookie season. The Mavs legend is still an elite shot-maker at the age of 40, but he’s long since lost the ability to compete on defense, and he can’t be the roll man their offense needs. There’s no spot in the lineup for him: Dallas is committed to Smith and Matthews in the backcourt, and Doncic and Barnes on the wings. Dirk has been much more effective in recent years in short bursts on the second unit, a role he could handle for years to come as long as he stays healthy. After all, it’s not like he will get smaller or forget how to shoot.

Dirk, one of the most beloved players in the league and the first European to win an NBA championship as the undisputed primary option, is the perfect mentor for Doncic. He’s a consummate professional who has played in the NBA longer than Doncic has been alive, and he will be a great sounding board for the 19-year-old on and off the court. Dirk can give Doncic shooting tips and take off some of the pressure when it comes to being the face of the franchise. Nor will there be any skepticism in the Dallas area about the ceiling of an international player.

There have been plenty of great guards and big men to come out of Europe, but the EuroLeague has never produced the type of 6-foot-8 superstar on the wing that has become the most important player in the NBA. Giannis Antetokounmpo never played at that level, and he has more athleticism than most American players. Doncic is the most heralded prospect the continent has ever produced, but he was still doubted on draft night because his game relies more on skill than speed. If he lives up to his potential, the next Luka Doncic will be the no. 1 overall pick.