clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Basketball is about feelings: Learning how to lose in Europe taught Luka Dončić how to win

European basketball has a setup that makes young players more resilient, grow their character and teaches a winning mindset

Real Madrid Won Liga Endesa Championship 2017-2018 Photo by COOLMEDIA/Peter Sabok/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Failure is an important step on the path to becoming a winning player and a winning team.

Though it’s not very fun to watch a team failing, it’s a necessary process in developing a winning mindset. If you’re a winning player, who knows how to act in clutch moments, knows what it takes to reach the top as a player and with a team - you have spent a long time failing first.

Luka Dončić is one of those winning players. He’s shown that with Real Madrid and with the Slovenian national team. Even though his rise to superstardom seems flawless, it’s not. Leaving his home to move to Spain at 13, getting to play with the senior Real Madrid team at 16, winning the EuroLeague MVP and the championship with Real Madrid at 18. The same summer, he won EuroBasket with Slovenia.

These things didn’t just fall into his lap. Besides hard work, Luka failed a lot along the way - he just did it earlier than most.

He’s learned how to work through failure - and it shows in how he handles the big moments. He has missed in clutch, made huge mistakes and lost his team games multiple times.

But what makes him a winning player is that he knows how to get right back up and work through it. A bad game isn’t going to keep Luka from getting a 30 point triple double next game. Almost the opposite.

European club culture prepares players for success

There’s a rapidly growing number of Europeans in the NBA every year. The number one prospect right now is European, Victor Wembanyama from France, and some might even say that the best players in the league are European at the moment. Europeans have won the last four MVP awards and three out of the top five players in the MVP-ranking last year were European. One was African, one American.

What’s going on in Europe that’s causing this success by European players in the NBA?

One of the most important things are the club aspect of basketball in Europe. Kids belong to teams separate of schools, and practice and play in their free time, as opposed to most American middle schoolers, high schoolers - and college players.

When they reach the age of 14-16, where development is crucial and growth happens rapidly, the clubs often select the best players to play with older kids and sometimes even adults in lower divisions, where they get a lot of experience, minutes and learn how to play grown men.

This means that a lanky Nikola Jokic played against grown men in Serbia’s second or third division at 15 and Luka was already doing that at age 13 with Real Madrid.

Can you imagine what that does to a talented teenager?

First of all, you get your ass kicked every practice and probably every game. You’re not the star, you don’t get coddled or star treatment like the best players in high school. You have to live up to the rules and discipline of the coaches and if you don’t, you don’t play. In short, you get battletested very early on.

Most importantly: you get to learn from vets while you’re still a teenager. Grown men, who have been there. And if you’re good enough and get to play on the best team eventually, like Luka at 16, you get to learn from the stars. You get to know the best players and you get to experience them up close and understand that they are normal people.

Compare this to the US, where the best players in high school play with and against other high schoolers. If you’re good, you’re the star, you get special treatment and often get cuddled. Schools often don’t want to risk upsetting their star player, then he might not want to play.

Think about Zion Williamson, being this huge guy already as a 13 year old, dunking on small kids - dominating, but not learning or developing - other than maybe his own expectations as to how an amazing player he is.

This can limit high schoolers’ growth and it doesn’t prepare them to play on a high level like the European tradition does.

Big moments matter

A good point from Fran Fraschilla, who’s currently an ESPN college basketball analyst, in his podcast “The World of Basketball”, is that the European players also learn the fundamentals much earlier and better than the average American high schooler.

You see that in many European NBA-players, who aren’t as limited to their position as many Americans, most of the centers are great three point shooters for example. That’s becoming more normal generally in the league, but Dirk Nowitzki was perhaps one of the first European big men to show that skill on a high level.

In an interview with David Hein, a European basketball analyst, Fran Fraschilla also makes the observation that learning to play in systems and schemes from a young age, which is normal in Europe, makes it easier to play them when they get older - and it makes them more enjoyable to play with for teammates, because they know their stuff. They know their role and they know how to play it.

Many of the European players have been in plenty of big moments when they arrive in the US. A lot of people aren’t aware of the pressure in those big EuroLeague games. These players have been there before, many have played internationally too and faced the best players in the world - and they are just less intimidated, when they come to the NBA.

Fran Franschilla makes the point that a lot of guys in the EuroLeague could be playing in the NBA right now, but contractural obligations and them not being willing to play a lower role, may hold them back.

Learning from mistakes

Jason Kidd has built part of his philosophy for the team up around the idea of learning from your mistakes - that this will creat wins. Despite the simplicity of this, it holds a certain truth.

The European players show up in the NBA often better prepared, because they learned how to fail early on. They learned that they don’t get special treatment because they’re the best player at their age, that basketball is about the team, not individual players and they learn to fail in the lower divisions, so they can succeed when their name is called.

Luka Dončić knows how to win, because he failed a lot first.

As a wise coach recently told me: Adversity builds character. Learning to deal with adversity creates resilience. You have to work through it to win.

Find last week’s Maverick Feelings here.