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World Cup 2023: Can Luka Dončić and Slovenia shed the ghost of EuroBasket?

They lost to an inferior opponent in last year’s EuroBasket. For Slovenia and Luka Dončić this World Cup is redemption time 

Japan v Slovenia Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

Last time the Slovenian national team played in an international FIBA competition does not bring back happy memories for players and fans alike. It was in the quarterfinal of the EuroBasket 2022 against Poland, a game where the team seemed to collapse in the first half and never really catch up in the second, the reigning champions losing to an inferior opponent in a disappointing manner.

During this year’s training camp, Klemen Prepelič, veteran guard and crucial piece on the team, said that the team’s attitude might have been too casual:

“It was our own fault. I hope we learned that we will not go into a game casually, but with maximum concentration.”

Jaka Blažič, another vet on the team even called the outcome “a shock” and “additional motivation”.

In a press conference prior to Slovenia’s prep games this year, Luka Dončić made sure to point out how the team has moved on from the disappointment of last year.

He said that he was motivated after not doing as well as expected, but emphasized that it wasn’t the first or last time the Slovenian team had lost a game. This is another year, a different team, so it makes no sense to focus on what happened last year, Luka said.

Bad injury luck

Slovenia struggles with a lot of the same issues as the Dallas Mavericks. Too many guards, problems creating offense when Luka is not on the floor, lacks a presence in the paint and needs better defense.

And unfortunately, luck has not been on Slovenia’s side during the preparation phase. In June, Edo Muric, former Captain, vibes guy and leader on the team tore his ACL, which meant no World Cup for him. Then, against Greece in Athens on 4th August, Vlatko Cancar (Denver Nuggets) had to be carried off the floor with a torn ACL as well. Two big men down, on a team already lacking an interior presence, does not bode well for Slovenia.

The hope, however, is that Mike Tobey, the American big man chosen as the team’s one foreign player allowed, can cover some holes left by Cancar and Muric.

Poland game stuck around

Back in 2022, Slovenia ended up losing in a devastating and some would say humiliating fashion to Poland, ending the EuroBasket hopes early at a time where many expected that Slovenia would repeat the 2017 EuroBasket win. Especially with Luka Dončić blossoming into an NBA superstar in the meantime.

Slovenia lost 87-90, and Luka Dončić and his teammates showed little of the superior talent and magic we saw in both 2017 and earlier in the 2022 tournament. It looked like Luka, who can sway a game at his leisure, seemed to lose the reins of the game in that first half, perhaps thinking it was won before even walking on the court, and never quite recovering.

As the team struggled in all ways - defensively, shooting-wise and creating offense, Poland seemed to make every basket and Luka turned his energy toward the referees and sometimes teammates. He complained incessantly and missed defensive possessions on multiple occasions, while arguing with the refs. It was a major collapse on Luka Dončić’s part, maybe the worst of his professional career, and one he hasn’t really had a chance to come back from. Until now.

But the attitude and behavior that Luka portrayed in that last Poland game continued into the NBA season. One could make the connection that Luka brought the frustration of that loss and everything that happened in that game and around it, straight into the NBA season.

Here, he started like a man possessed, famously averaging 34.2 points, 8.9 assists and 8.7 rebounds in 34 games between October 15, 2022 and December 31, 2022, having to make up for the inadequate roster of the Dallas Mavericks.

One could argue that the Dallas superstar may not only have been making up for the roster weaknesses, but also for his mistakes in that Poland game every time he stepped on the court last fall. Except that the worst of his behavior, the incessant complaining and missing defensive effort, seemed to linger or get worse.

This is a thought that’s been haunting me all through last fall. And then last week, Anže Maček, Luka’s physical trainer, said something that confirmed this analysis:

“He was extremely motivated. He wanted to do something. He is also driven by the last two experiences. As if he would like to make amends for the result at EuroBasket 2022, even if he was not to blame for the wasted opportunity. The unfolding of the NBA season also fueled him.”

The fact that there wasn’t much help to get on the Mavericks left him overcompensating and being forced to keep it up until his body couldn’t handle it anymore. And then his mind went the same way. He lost the joy of the game. (While he explained that his loss of joy in basketball was due to private issues, the pressure and disappointment of the season surely didn’t help).

“He was angry”

Whether Luka was humbled in the way of learning and growing, and has spent this precious free time over the summer regaining the joy of playing basketball and reflecting on his priorities, remains to be seen.

But if you’re interested in getting an impression of how Luka’s next NBA season might turn out, watching him play for Slovenia in the World Cup is time well spent.

It will give us a clue as to how he spent his summer, physically and mentally, and whether he used his mistakes as fuel, and a learning and growing experience.

“With Luka Dončić, you can always aim for the highest places,” teammate Klemen Prepelič said during training camp.

And there’s no doubt that Luka Dončić is aiming to right the wrongs of last year’s EuroBasket. The president of the Basketball Association of Slovenia (KZS), Matej Erjavec, was in Dallas when the decision was made to limit the playing time of Luka Dončić in the last game of the regular NBA season. According to him, Luka did not like that decision:

“He was angry. He turned to me at dinner and said: ‘President, we’re going to win a medal at the World Championships!’ Erjavec said.

In their first game in the World Cup, Slovenia meets Venezuela on 26. August , 6.30 am CT, 13.30 (Europe). Find out how to watch here.

Find more information about Slovenia and the World Cup here.