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The Mavericks’ success rests on how big a step Luka Doncic takes

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Last season’s Rookie of the Year is primed for a major season in a new era for the Mavericks.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

[EIC’s note: As with every season, and as training camp and preseason approach, we start to take a look at the Mavericks’ individual players and how the roster fits together — starting from the top down. Enjoy! Basketball is so close! -RL]

Though they might all be hiding out in bunkers and storm cellars now, there was a quiet collection of Luka Doncic doubters last fall. To be sure, they weren’t in Dallas. They lingered around Phoenix, Sacramento and Atlanta. They lurked in the shadows of #NBATwitter making claims that Allonzo Trier was better than Doncic, even calling him a “Hedo Turkoglu twin.”

We all know how that ended, with the Wonder Boy wowing night in and night out, posting one of the best rookie seasons in the history of the league, and waltzing his way to the Rookie of the Year award.

Now that our German father rode off into the sunset, the new era of Dallas Mavericks basketball has begun. And with an entirely new starting lineup in tow, Doncic looks to make a leap in his development, with eyes toward sneaking the Mavs into the playoffs.

Biggest Question

When previewing Doncic last season, I focused on questions about his defensive ability. There were valid concerns about Doncic’s conditioning and athleticism, and how that might be exposed along the perimeter.

Much has been made this summer of how much weight he’s been able to cut, and what a lighter Luka will look like on the offensive end. But I’m just as curious what it means for his defense — especially if Rick Carlisle opts for a starting lineup of Delon Wright, Doncic, Justin Jackson, Kristaps Porzingis and Dwight Powell. That puts one of Doncic or Jackson out on the perimeter guarding players smaller and quicker than them.

But the biggest question in Doncic’s second season is: what kind of chemistry will he have with Porzingis? The Mavericks have traded a lot of future assets to acquire these two players, and their compatibility and growth will define this next era of Mavs basketball. Their games seem to mesh well in theory, but everyone’s itching to see it action.

Additionally, for Doncic individually, his game can go to the next level if he can get more comfortable at the free throw line. His inconsistency at the line was a growing story last season. Impressively, he was 10th in the league in free throw attempts per game, listed among players like James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But he was ninth in that group, shooting 71 percent at the stripe (LeBron James was 10th at 66.5 percent). Can Luka sort out his free throw shooting to take the next step?

Best Case Scenario

A slimmer, more mobile Luka should make the two-man game with Porzingis pretty deadly. Their skillsets are so complimentary that defenders will be forced to pick their poison. And assuming his ability to connect from the free throw line and three point line takes a step forward, there’s no reason Doncic isn’t averaging something north of 25 points per game.

But for Luka Doncic to have his best season, though it may not be fair, he’s going to need the shooters the Mavericks do have to step up. Many hoped the Mavericks were going to spend their summer signing a corral of solid three point shooters. That didn’t quite happen. For Doncic’s deadly passing to matter outside of thrilling highlights, guys like the aforementioned Jackson, alongside Seth Curry, Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr., need to find consistency from deep.

Projecting actual stats is a futile affair, but there’s no reason Doncic can’t average something in the neighborhood of 26 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists. In a best case scenario season, it’s not out of the question that Doncic is appearing in the All-Star game, even in a loaded Western Conference. The Mavericks desperately need that sort of season out of Doncic, and the young star seems unfazed by the pressure.

Worst Case Scenario

Expectations should be tempered as Kristaps Porzingis eases his way back to NBA play. But nothing would be more devastating for the Mavericks if Luka and his superstar counterpart don’t mesh on the floor. If it isn’t clear already, a lot is riding on the compatibility of these two.

Sophomore slumps exist in the NBA. As opponents learn tendencies, have more on-court experience against these young stars, and the pressure of following up a sensational season is felt, it isn’t uncommon to see a dip in production.

Though it seems unlikely, Doncic could see similar issues if he tries to do too much or forces his game. There are a lot of new pieces that will be on the floor with him, whether it’s new players or former teammates thrust into larger roles.

And as we saw with his free throw issues last season, the mental side of the game can be a challenge. Doncic has made his intentions of making the playoffs known. If the Mavericks start to falter through a tough winter schedule, the mental challenge of season may prove quite a hurdle. But after a season of Doncic, we know he’s a competitor that won’t back down.