Sometimes, after a lackluster Luka Doncic performance (like we saw in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks on Wednesday night), I like to rev up the ol’ YouTube machine and watch film on the young superstar before he got drafted by the Dallas Mavericks. You know, the Real Madrid and/or Slovenia stuff.
At that point in his basketball journey, Luka was a skinny teenager wowing basketball fans across Europe. Now, he’s a perennial MVP candidate with his eyes set on the biggest prize in basketball: the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Lots of things have changed over the last few years for Luka. When he was balling out in Europe pre-2018 NBA Draft, he was skinnier than he is now. He was lighter on his feet. His jumper was a little smoother. He was blowing by defenders using deceptive speed. His side-steps were quicker. He was bouncier and more explosive around the rim, whether that be rebounding balls in traffic or throwing down vicious dunks.
I mean, check this guy out:
In the clip above, he’s racing down the court with a defender on his side. He simply gathers the ball, rises up, and throws down a violent dunk. When was the last time you saw him do that in an NBA game? (The answer is November 12 against the Spurs, and the dunk looked way less cool than the one above.)
This all begs the question: Does going back and watching pre-NBA Luka film leave you with hope in your heart or despair?
The answer, like most things: It’s complicated.
Mavs fans are well aware of Luka’s fitness issues coming into this season (and his fitness issues in prior NBA seasons). It’s been heavily talked about on podcasts and written about on websites. It’s no secret that Luka is trying to play himself into shape right now. And like normal, Luka will get into better shape. Maybe it’s soon, maybe it’s not, but it’ll happen.
That’s part of why watching these old Luka highlights are cause for sadness. At 22 years of age, Luka should still be in his physical prime. He shouldn’t be trending downward as each season goes on. He used to glide to the rim like a shape-shifter, now he lumbers to the rim like a 35-year-old veteran. It looks like he’s playing in slow motion, and the results are right there with the eye test. It’s sad to watch those old Luka highlights because we know how incredible he truly could be right now.
On the other hand, watching his European film gives me hope for the future of The Wonder Boy. He has the physical gifts that he needs. We don’t have to wonder what Luka could look like if he was a little quicker because we’ve seen it. And at 22, we know he can get back to that.
It’s also important to note that who Luka is now is still a superstar. The guy has made First Team All-NBA twice (twice!) and is still one of the best players on the planet. But he’s capable of more.
The thing is, we don’t want Luka to be the same guy he was as a teenager. The strength that he’s added to his frame in the NBA has made him damn-near unguardable — when he pairs it with his savvy, unexpected quickness. When he loses that step, he’s easier to contain. We want Luka to be a combination of what he was in Europe and what he is now — basically what Luka was in the 2019-20 NBA season. He needs his deceptive quickness and his muscle. The muscle that he’s added is all a positive. It’s the other stuff that’s worrisome. But that’s also the stuff that can be dropped with a little more off-season focus.
So going back to the original question: Does watching pre-NBA Luka film leave you with hope in your heart or despair?
The answer for me is one initial minute of despair, followed by infinite hope. The Mavs have that guy on their team, and he’s still only 22 years old. Once he finds the physical combination of how he was at Real Madrid and how he is now in Dallas, he’ll be one of the most unguardable players the league has ever seen — similar to the 20-year-old we saw in Dallas in his second season. We just have to hope he finds that perfect combination sooner than later. Each season that goes by with him not being in peak physical condition will ultimately be a season wasted when it comes to looking back on his legacy.
The good news: A lot of guys didn’t figure this stuff out when they first entered the league. It takes some time. As fans, it’s about being patient, while also trying to hold Luka accountable. We know what he’s capable of. We just want to see him get there.