The very first game of this season, you could say there was some decent pressure on Luka Doncic.
It was the Dallas Mavericks’ first regular season game without Dirk Nowitzki since 1998. Expectations were at an all-time high due to Doncic’s Rookie of the Year campaign a season prior and the addition of Kristaps Porzingis. For the first time since the Mavericks paired Nowitzki with Steve Nash and Michael Finley, the Mavericks had hope. Not just hoping some old guys and misfit-toy youngsters would play well around an aging star, but an honest to god foundation of the best young player in the game with another young All-Star capable talent.
Typical for Doncic, he thrived. The Washington Wizards tried to bully him in the fourth quarter, but it didn’t matter. Doncic had 34 points and nine rebounds on 12-of-19 shooting, he buried them. I covered that game for the site and asked perhaps the dumbest question I’ve ever asked a professional athlete.
I asked Doncic how it felt getting the physical defense treatment from the Wizards.
“I got used to it last year,” Doncic said, as a shit-eating grin spread across his face. He knew it was a bullshit question, one he’s probably been asked a thousand times by morons like me that didn’t watch every minute of every game he played in Europe. He paused, slightly, before emphasizing his point. “And the year before. And the year before. I’m used to it.”
We’re nine months from that moment. Doncic just drilled a game-winning, buzzer-beating three to win Game 4 and tie the first round series against the two-seeded Los Angeles Clippers. A team featuring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, two of the best in the league. At a certain point, Doncic will stop surprising us. We’ll have a reasonable expectation of what he can do, what he can’t do and how far he can take a team. Right now though, we can still dream. It’s one that I don’t think we’ll wake up for a long, long time.
Doncic has done this before. The thing we have to keep repeating, boring it into our skulls and deep into our brains, is that Doncic has already seen a lot. He is 21 years old, but has the basketball life experience of a 30 year old. He’s been a pro since he was 13. He played his first professional game at 16. Hell, he played against an NBA team as a 17-year-old. He won a championship and MVP in Europe before he put on a Mavericks jersey. That’s a lot!
It’s easy for those of us stateside to wave these things off. What’s farther away from us is easier to ignore, right? Even those of us enamored with Doncic before the 2018 Draft still had reasonable questions. Those questions seem really stupid right now.
“How would Doncic handle NBA athleticism? How will he perform under the bright lights? How will he lead a team in the playoffs? How will he fare in hostile road environments?” All this asked of a dude that broke ankles and nailed game-winners in arenas in the second best basketball league in the world where when the crowd gets mad at a bad call they’ll shoot flares.
Doncic has done this before. He’s done almost all of this before. That’s why it almost makes it so hard to project his future. Could Doncic be a better three-point shooter? Duh. Could he stand to make some more free throws and be a more consistent defender? Of course.
The thing is...what does that look like? About 48 hours ago, Doncic had one of the worst professional games of his career. He shot miserably, his team lost and he sprained his ankle. The very next game he goes for 43-17-13 on 18-of-31 shooting. He’s going to get better than that. He’ll have another hiccup, another game where an elite contender stymies him for a night. We’ll hear him talk about having too many turnovers or settling for too many threes. We’ll write columns, we’ll record podcasts, asking what Doncic needs to do to get better. We’ll ponder if he needs another summer to tune up his game, add another tool to the toolbox. Then he’ll come back, likely the very next game like he did in Game 4 and countless other nights, and show us something we haven’t seen before from someone his age. We’ll be surprised, even when we shouldn’t, because it’s the only way to react.
If everything Doncic is now is good enough for everything he’s already done, what will he do tomorrow when he’s better?
That’s the dream of Luka Doncic. I’m fine with snoozing for a few more years.