When I watch Luka Dončić play, I’m drawn to, inspired by, the sheer joy and childlike freedom he exudes. He is special and anyone who watches him play knows it instantly and instinctively.
When we watch him, we wonder what magic he’s going to do next, finding holes in defenses no one else can see, reading players’ movements and schemes like the back of his hand. Luka knows magic and we’re all his witnesses.
But it turns out that there may a method to his madness — or magic. Something that’s as unconscious as it gets, and very hard to do. A talent in the rawest sense of the word, an ability to access a part of the brain that most human beings just can’t do to that extent.
Recently, I was listening to an interview with David Epstein, Sports Science Writer and best-selling author, on the ESPN Daily podcast. Epstein was talking about Joe Burrow, mentioning things about the Cincinnati Bengals player that sounded very familiar. When I heard him describe the type of player that Burrow is, Luka’s name kept flashing in my brain.
Comparing quarterbacks to point guards isn’t exactly a new thing, but this aspect of how they view the game in the same way is interesting.
According to Epstein, some athletes, particularly the best quarterbacks in the world, like Burrow, see and feel the game slowing down for them when in the zone or in their flow. In that special place, a kind of slow motion version of reality, time slows down and they are able to anticipate passes and movements of the other players. This makes them able to make split-second decisions on whether to pass (or shoot in basketball specifically), because they can anticipate what the opponent is going to do next.
Through all their training, these athletes have learned to see the field or court like a chess board. That makes them see the spaces in the game — the spaces in between players and the lanes to drive, rather than the individual parts — like most of us would.
They’re grasping this holistic aspect of the field unconsciously, accessing skills in the lizard part of the brain. Simply put: being in the moment. They stop thinking and allow the things and skills they’ve practiced a million times to just happen and wash over them.
This is the case for many quarterbacks, Epstein pointed out, and it immediately peaked my interest. Wasn’t this how Luka had described the game at one point?
After a lot of research, I found the place where Luka had said something similar. On The Old Man and the Three podcast, he talked to JJ Redick about his isolation offense:
“First thing I look at is who’s under the basket, big or small. Have they been in the paint or gotta get out. Then I try to drive because I know they gonna collapse and someone’s gonna be open.”
Like the best quarterbacks, Luka sees the spaces on the floor and he knows who’s been in the paint and needs to get out, and who hasn’t. He anticipates the defense’s movements, and not until then does he decide whether to pass or shoot.
This video by Grant Afseth of DallasBasketball.com gives a lot of good examples of Luka’s vision, ability to manipulate the defense and elite passing.
This is just like when athletes, musicians, artists and writers reach that coveted place I like to call flow. Some call it the zone and others magic. This coveted place is when a person or player accesses the lizard part of the brain. That’s the part which Luka is world class at using, but it may also be what’s keeping him below average on free throws, interestingly.
When the game stops, everyone lines up and you get the ball on the line — flow is nowhere to be seen. You’ve gone from automatic to overthinking, from the lizard part to the prefrontal cortex — and that’s not a good place to be if you don’t know how to manage it and stop thinking.
When you learn a new skill, you’re using the prefrontal cortex. But as you practice it and it becomes second nature, the skill moves to the lizard part, which you can access without thinking.
When the context changes, like a free throw situation, and if you become aware and start thinking about how you can’t miss that free throw, you pull it right back from the automatic part of the brain to the part where you’re a beginner again.
Dirk Nowitzki would famously sing to himself during free throws to prevent thinking and try to keep his brain in automatic mode, and the results were staggering. He was a 90 percent free throw shooter when he would sing David Hasselhoff to himself during free throws.
Luka’s flow and vision are both world class and we’re all trying to understand how exactly he does what he does every night. Even Luka doesn’t know, and that’s part of the reason he can do it.
If he starts thinking too much and being too aware of what he really does on the floor, there might be a risk that the magic disappears. That the joy we see in him evaporates in overthinking and awareness. Because Luka’s magic is found in his unawareness and freedom, in his emotions that come through in the way he plays, both when things are good and when they’re bad.